Could advisory committees help repair a broken Congress?

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By Stuart Kasdin

Congress and the media have recently celebrated Congress’ success in funding the government, after only a short shutdown. With this Congress, even producing continuing resolutions in a timely fashion is recognized as an achievement. To pass almost any other significant legislation, starting with the Bush tax cuts, Congress has relied on budget reconciliation because it enables simple majority votes in the Senate obviating the need for bipartisan negotiation and compromise.

Over the years, many non-governmental organizations have offered a variety of reform proposals to address congressional dysfunction. Many of these proposed reforms focus on changing the rules of floor debate, filibusters, the amendment process, the congressional schedule, and the budgeting process.

There are two problems with these reforms. First, there is an endogeneity problem: those responsible for the gridlock and dysfunction are also responsible for deciding on reforms to alter it. When reforms that would reduce gridlock and enhance Congress’ effectiveness do not get adopted, it is generally because most members don’t want the change.

Second, while the proposed reforms are typically worthwhile, for the most part they do not address the root of the problem—a failure to deliberate. Congress is failing from a lack of communication, comity, and willingness to compromise.

In our paper, “Creating Comity Amidst Gridlock: A Corporatist Repair for a Broken Congress," we examine a solution involving an expanded role for public participation based on deliberative democracy. Deliberative democracy holds that for a democratic decision to be legitimate, it must be preceded by authentic deliberation; that is, voting alone is not sufficient to establish legitimacy and public buy-in.

We examine different institutions of deliberative democracy that might be applied to the Congress. Federal advisory committees are one set of such institutions that are used to inform, counsel, and guide government agencies in the implementation of federal programs. These committees, with members taken from the relevant public stakeholder groups, enable adversarial interests to build relationships over an extended period as they negotiate program goals.

The international equivalent of the advisory committee design is found in democratic neo-corporatism, in which certain community or interest groups are privileged participants in the national policy formulation and implementation. In democratic neo-corporatism, national governments foster negotiations on economic policy and other issues via committees composed of business, labor, and state interest groups.

We apply these approaches to Congress, assessing the potential feasibility for a form of democratic neo-corporatism in Congress, where advisory committees made up of representatives of different stakeholder and interest groups are attached to each congressional authorizing committee. We analyze how such a congressional advisory system should be designed, such as how to achieve representative membership, as well as to select members who might effectively work together. We also ask whether there is a realistic chance such an institutional innovation, aimed at encouraging public deliberation, could ever develop, and thereby enhance communication and compromise in Congress.     

So, is there a realistic chance of Congress adopting such an innovation? One would be foolish to bet against congressional inertia, but such reforms are possible. One reason is that variations of the system could be tested on an experimental basis, with individual committees opting to form advisory committees on specific policy issues. Committees could weigh on an individual basis whether a particular issue and the political environment lend themselves to advisory committee input. Unlike other institutional reforms, Congress could test (and refine) advisory committees, opting to use them when it makes most sense for a committee. 

But until a majority of members accept that congressional dysfunctional is intolerable and commit to finding innovative solutions, changes in Congress will only come via elections. That would seem like a strong incentive to reform, but change is never easy.

Stuart Kasdin was a professor of public management at George Washington University, worked at OMB for over 11 years, and currently serves on the Goleta City Council in California.