Cynics Beware: The Under-Reported Successes of the 118th Congress

December 22, 2023   J.D. Rackey

  • Congressional Reform
  • Blog

As the first session of the 118th Congress comes to a close it is worth reflecting on the past year. Most annual reviews of Congress would focus on the unusually high levels of chaos and dysfunction that have plagued the Article I branch this year. A protracted speaker fight, near government shutdown, potentially defaulting on our debt, hundreds of military promotions held up for months on end, a second protracted speaker fight—it leaves one questioning the wisdom of even having a legislative branch. Despite dire headlines, Congress also took many steps forward to reassert its authority and strengthen its internal operations to better set itself up for future success.

It’s been one year since the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress closed shop after a four-year run that culminated in 202 bipartisan recommendations to make Congress more “effective, efficient, and transparent on behalf of the American people.” The committee had a tremendous track record implementing many of its recommendations while it was in operation—something no previous congressional reform effort was able to accomplish. It did so while modeling a way of working that seems anathema in an era of extreme partisanship.

When the committee ended, many were left wondering if Congress could continue the work to improve itself. Thankfully, at the start of the 118th Congress the Committee on House Administration created a new Subcommittee on Modernization. While it is smaller in size and has more limited resources than its predecessor, it has been able to continue to move the institution forward in a bipartisan manner. By my count, the subcommittee has been able to fully implement thirteen of the select committee’s recommendations this year and has made significant progress on many others.

Many of the recommendations implemented this year have a direct and immediate impact on congressional operations and authority. For example, the bulk purchase of an e-discovery tool will allow congressional committees to better conduct oversight of the executive branch. Likewise, the rolling out of a committee calendaring tool will help deconflict hearing schedules to allow members to spend more time in hearings so that they can more meaningfully participate in policy discussions rather than rushing from hearing room to hearing room.

Outside of work on the specific recommendations from the Modernization Committee, Congress has taken steps to reassert its independence and ensure that it is a central policy player in the world ahead. This year saw a change in leadership at the Congressional Research Service which should lead to further changes in how the agency serves Congress boosting the speed and quality of information that lawmakers have access to during lawmaking process. Both the House and Senate have issued guidelines for the use of artificial intelligence tools in the workplace and convened various working groups to ensure Congress stays updated on the potentially world-altering technology.

Congress also took steps to reassert its independence from the executive branch by removing the president from the hiring (and firing) process for the Architect of the Capitol and explored ways to put itself on equal legal footing as the executive branch. While many of these changes may seem trivial, they are perhaps better viewed as a signal that Congress is slowly starting to realize how much power it has abdicated or lost to the other branches, a sentiment that is shared by former members of Congress as well.

The road ahead will continue to be bumpy—Congress will face another round of battles to keep the government open as soon as it comes back into session in January. The pervasiveness of vitriolic rhetoric will continue unabated as House Republicans proceed with an impeachment inquiry into President Biden and the dawn of a presidential election year that has control of both chambers up for grabs.

It is easy to be cynical about Congress, the legislative process is chaotic by design making policy wins few and far between. Still, we shouldn’t let the theater of politics completely drown out the good work being done to shore up our democracy by ensuring we have a legislative branch that is capable of meeting the needs of the modern world.

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