Congratulations on being elected to the 118th Congress. By now you are already in Washington for an “orientation” whose ostensible purpose is for you to meet your new colleagues and get advice on staffing, committee assignments, juggling work and family and — yes — the urgent need to start raising funds for the next election. Only later will you come to realize that what it’s really about is indoctrinating and socializing you into a set of norms and expectations that will strip you of most of your legislative purpose and power and ensure that the next Congress will be as partisan and dysfunctional as the last.
This is a legislative body, after all, that for more than a decade has been incapable of addressing, let alone resolving, most of the major issues facing the country — climate change, immigration, gun violence, the opioid crisis, excess concentration of corporate and financial power, large and growing budget deficits and the escalating inequality of income, and opportunity.
A Congress which, long before Covid, embraced the three-day work week (and, even then, for only for 35 weeks per year) while explaining that the reason more can’t be accomplished is that there simply isn’t enough time.
A Congress where committees have become irrelevant, with impossibly large memberships, hearings that are nothing more than political kabuki, chairs who have become pawns of party leaders and members who rubber stamp whatever their leaders decide.
A Congress where compromise is viewed as treason and good ideas are rejected simply because the other party is for them.
All of these things are now true, by the way, in both the House and the Senate, under both Republican majorities or Democratic.
It’s fair to say that nobody is happy with the result — least of all the members of Congress themselves, who increasingly dislike their jobs even as they have become more willing to do whatever it takes to keep them.
The narrative that drives and justifies this self-destructive behavior is the same in both parties: “It’s all their fault,” referring to the other party. “They started it. They are the ones who trashed political norms, who weaponized every issue, who refuse to compromise. They are the ones who are determined to shove a radical agenda down the throat of a country they do not represent, respect or understand.”
Once this became the controlling narrative within each party, the only logical strategy going forward is to forget about governing during the current session of Congress and focus on do whatever it takes to win a decisive victory in the next. Then, the theory goes, once our party gains the power to enact our agenda, it will prove so popular that the other party will be crushed once and for all, and American democracy will be saved.
But as this year’s results confirm, the country is too evenly divided, and too centrist, to accept total victory by either party. As a result, we are left with a stubborn and unsatisfying political stalemate, in which neither party can achieve total victory but neither is willing to compromise.
As members of the new freshman class, you now have a decision to make. You can either stick with your leaders and caucuses and become part of this gridlock and fantasy thinking, or you can refuse to participate in the blood feud and join with colleagues of both parties who possess the independence and courage to try to govern in a bipartisan manner.
Please don’t kid yourself into thinking that you can work within your caucus to make things less partisan and vitriolic. The few who have tried — including two Republican speakers forced into retirement — have failed miserably. The only way to break through the gridlock is to weaken the grip of leaders and caucuses, not reform them.
1. Vote against all continuing resolutions. For 12 years running, Congress has been unable even to deliver on its most basic function — setting annual appropriations for the federal government — relying instead unending series of “continuing resolutions” rushed through with little notice or debate with a government shutdown looming. In a closely divided chamber, it would take only a few members of both parties to block continuing resolutions or other massive packages negotiated behind doors by a handful of party leaders. By announcing your intention now, you will shift responsibility for any government shutdown to party leaders and committee chairs who, at this point, don’t even pretend to go through the normal budget process.
2. Vote against all closed rules. Today’s members are rarely allowed to propose or vote on amendments, lest it empower members of the minority party or force members of the majority to take politically difficult votes. In the House, announce in advance that you will vote against all “closed rules” that do not allow members of both parties to offer a reasonable number of amendments to major legislation. In the Senate, announce you’re going to vote against all time agreements that don’t allow amendments. That won’t assure bipartisan compromise, but at least it will make it possible.
3. Refuse to support most filibusters. In the Senate, announce in advance that you not support filibusters except on a handful of major issues. That’s not eliminating the Senate filibuster — it’s preserving it. Filibustering every issue, as both parties now do whenever they are in the minority, doesn’t foster bipartisan compromise. It discourages it by intensifying the partisan blood feud.
4. Move your family to Washington. It’s now conventional wisdom in both parties that you risk losing reelection if you fail to return home every weekend. (So intense is this fear of being perceived as part of the Washington establishment that a former Republican speaker of the House actually slept on his office couch while in Washington.) Don’t believe it. If you’re not a good enough politician to demonstrate you are working hard at the job you were elected to do in Washington, you don’t deserve to be reelected — particularly when the undemanding Congressional calendar gives you at least one week in every four to return home for a “district work period.”
In fact, you could enhance your prospects of reelection if, rather than returning home for the four-day Congressional weekend, you and a few like-minded colleagues spent an hour each Monday and Friday on the deserted floor of the House or Senate debating the issues that Congress has been “too busy” to address. Some will call it a political stunt but — trust me on this — it will be noticed by millions of voters who have jobs that require them to work five days a week.
5. Serve on only one major committee. Another bit of political fantasy is that you can enhance reelection prospects by serving on as many committees as you can get, allowing you to curry favor with, and raise campaign contributions from, a wider circle of special interest groups. In reality, the influence of individual members has declined as membership has expanded, resulting in committees that are too big and unwieldy to reach consensus. Instead, ask for only one major committee and focus on becoming its best informed, most thoughtful and respected member. There won’t be much competition.
6. Attend no more than one party caucus every two weeks. With the demise of the committee system, all power has flowed to the party caucuses that now meet at least once each week, and often more. These are the meetings at which members ostensibly debate what position the party will take on major issues, albeit through the distortive lens of what is best for the party, not the country. More often, however, these are occasions when members are given their marching orders and talking points, and when potential defectors are bullied into submission by their colleagues. The best way to demonstrate and maintain your independence is not to attend too many.
7. Vote only for party leaders who promise to fix the legislative plumbing. Your first big decision will come as early as this week, when members of the next Congress choose party leaders. Refuse to commit to any candidates who won’t promise — publicly — to restore power and initiative to committees, restore the five-day work week, allow genuine opportunity for floor amendments and provide political headroom for bipartisan compromise. In short, support only those candidates willing to give you back the power to do the job you were just elected to do. Don’t accept vague private assurances. If no reformer emerges, abstain — and let the voters back home know why.
8. Don’t do any of this by yourself. The only way this works is if you can find a dozen colleagues in the Senate, or three dozen in the House, to join you in this fight to save Congress from itself. With painfully narrow majorities in both houses, that’s all that would be needed to deny both caucuses the unity and parliamentary freedom they need to pursue the hyper-partisan strategies that have broken the legislative process. And at every turn, remind them — and the voters back home — that your purpose is to empower all 535 members of Congress to be legislators again rather than serving as props and puppets for party leaders and caucuses.
If last week’s election results contained any message, it was that the voters who decide swing elections crave a return to political normalcy. The coming session represents the last best chance to pull American politics back from the brink. The stark choice you now face is whether to sign up for more of the same and become part of the problem, or dare to break from the partisan pack and partisan routines and become part of the solution.