One of the big problems with how both chambers operate is the heavy reliance on the leaders to set the agenda for the majority. Things like McConnell’s decision to block an election-year recess so that Democratic senators can’t campaign for reelection, or McConnell’s decision to block a constitutionally mandated duty of the Senate to advise on a judicial nomination. Or Paul Ryan pulling a fast one on Republicans in the House who wanted a vote on DACA.
You have a situation where, by virtue of not wanting to cooperate with the other party, members are forced to adhere to leaders that do not serve their interests or their states’ or districts’ interests. Members of both houses subordinate themselves to the leaders and the leaders’ priorities. The chief priority is to retain power, which is not something anybody outside of those relying on power for political patronage cares about. Down here at sea level, far below the peak of Mount Congress, we just want good governance.
In a better world, the leadership’s chief goal would not be retaining power, but in increasing the liquidity of legislation and making it easier for members to accomplish the work of their constituents. This kind of member-oriented legislature would put work ahead of elections. It would devolve leadership power to members.
Ah, but we have this pesky Nash equilibrium to deal with. The Republicans won’t lend the Democrats a cup of sugar, and the Democrats have been burned too many times by trusting the Republicans. If the party in power relinquishes the stranglehold, and still loses the next election, they will have squandered their fleeting chance to do anything to further their agenda. And even if they retain power, the other side will use the increased power to obstruct!
But the reality is that we’re approaching a breaking point with partisan greed. The Republicans took up where the Democrats left off in torching the filibuster on appointments. The president has openly blathered about abolishing the filibuster full stop. With the Senate so narrowly divided, there’s a maximal tendency for McConnell to try to change the rules so that instead of saying “Nay” to vote against a bill, Democrats will have to say, “Trump MAGA Wall” to vote against a bill.
One option to fix the logjam is to require committee-driven quotas for legislation. That each major committee shall produce and shall have voted on no fewer than five major proposals per session, or whatever works. A force-flow of legislation, functioning much like a writer setting a daily goal even if they have to write “Al lwor kan dnopl aymak esjacka dul lboy” over and over to make the nut.
Another quota system would require at least one minority piece of legislation per five majority pieces.
Yes, the majority would invariably vote the legislation down. But making the votes mandatory at least puts them on the record against expanding Medicaid to cover tofu baths or against requiring firearms to be referred to as, example, “The Honorable AK-47.”
Another important option would be to either term-limit leadership terms, so that different members would have to become leaders, impose limits based on poor performance, or simply require mandatory votes to continue leadership.
Leadership is one of the big problems, so changes that increase turnover or at least put more pressure on leaders to get things done in a bipartisan manner would be welcome. The main criticism here would be that it could force good leaders out prematurely. At this point in America’s political decline, that criticism would be much like panning ice cream for its propensity to melt.
There has to be some way to entice cooperation and better legislative flow. The decision not to do anything about infrastructure, for example, is approaching the threshold of gross negligence on the part of congress. There are other major priorities that keep taking a back seat to silly things like charging a trillion dollar tax cut onto Uncle Sam’s credit card.