March 14, 2012

The Washington Post

With Congress enduring some of its lowest approval ratings in history, what is it going to take to restore the reputations of the House and Senate?

A Senate panel plans to review several options Wednesday that would revamp the rules and functions of the House and Senate (or — as we like to call them around here — the 2chambers). The hearing comes as Americans remain deeply pessimistic about Congress: One-third of voters approve of the way congressional Democrats are doing their jobs and just 23 percent rate the Republicans favorably, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday.

“This hearing is important because it’s the first institutional indication that Congress knows it is sick,” Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) plans to tell colleagues at the hearing set to be held by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

“Our challenge is to find reforms that Congress will swallow,” according to Cooper’s prepared testimony. “The best reforms won’t work if Congress gags, but more palatable reforms must be strong enough to work. Congress is its own doctor; neither the President nor the Supreme Court can save us. If Congress won’t reform itself, I am confident that voters will.”

Most of the proposals come from No Labels, a nonpartisan group that released a 12-point “Make Congress Work” plan last year. Here’s a quick look at some of the ideas set for debate:

— “No Budget, No Pay”: Cooper and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) are sponsors of a measure that would withhold lawmakers’ pay if Congress fails to pass a budget by the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1. Adding additional pressure, lawmakers would not receive backpay if a deal is reached after the start of the new year. As The Post’s Ben Pershing wrote Tuesday, the proposal could hit some lawmakers hard: Rank-and-file lawmakers earn $174,000 and Congress hasn’t voted itself a pay raise since 2008.

— Two-Year Budgeting: Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Jeanne Shaheehn (D-N.H.) are cosponsoring legislation that would convert the federal budgetmaking process into a two-year affair. The first year would be focused on appropriating federal dollars, and the second year would focus on scrutinizing federal programs “to determine if they are working and deserve continued funding,” according to Isakson’s prepared testimony. Some agencies, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, already undergo a two- or multi-year budget process and several other lawmakers and outside groups have called for a more thoughtful, prolonged review of federal spending.

— Consideration of presidential nominees: This is a proposal that wouldn’t require a law, just a change in Senate rules. No Labels — and other groups, including the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service — want all presidential nominees to receive a confirmation vote within 90 days of the Senate formally receiving the nomination. A nominee would be confirmed by default after three months if he or she didn’t earn an up or down vote. Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), who supports the proposal, says in his testimony that the 90-day rule would bring “some closure to an often unending process.”

— Fixing Fillibusters: Davis, a co-founder of No Labels, believes that if a senator wants to halt action on a bill, he or she should come to the Senate floor and hold it through sustained debate. Davis also believes that filibusters should be banned on motions to proceed. “This step alone would cut the number of filibusters in half in one fell swoop,” Davis says.


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