The Ripon Forum

Volume 51, No. 2

April 2017

Creating a Congress of Tomorrow

By on April 26, 2017

by DARIN LAHOOD

Here’s a question for you: What do President Abraham Lincoln, former House Minority Leader Bob Michel, former Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, and President Ronald Reagan all have in common?

The answer: All aforementioned names have roots in Illinois and have called central Illinois home at some point in their lives.

Abraham Lincoln practiced law throughout central Illinois and served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1847-1849, before being elected President and re-uniting a divided nation. Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, a native of Pekin, IL, is credited with orchestrating the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to help bring the end to racial divide across our country. The late House Minority Leader Bob Michel represented the same district I now represent and was our nation’s longest-serving House Minority Leader, ensuring compromise while representing the minority for 14 years. President Ronald Reagan graduated from Eureka College, based in my district, where it is said he gave his first public speech when speaking to unite the entire student body and call for changes to the college administration.

More importantly than calling central Illinois home, these leaders are also hailed as champions of bipartisanship, fueled by civility, compassion, and compromise — traits I believe were acquired from their Midwest upbringing.

Central Illinois prides itself on the rich history of our leaders that have served in public office. President Lincoln, Leader Dirksen, President Reagan, and Leader Michel were all local leaders able to rise above partisanship to meet the significant demands they faced. We, as Congress, would all do well to follow their example.

When the governing process fails to function, reform is necessary.

Unfortunately, when speaking about Congress today, civility, compassion, and compromise are just buzzwords rather than traits of our first branch of government.

As the first branch of government established by Article 1 of our Constitution, Congress is charged with hefty responsibilities, including funding the government, providing for the military, and legislating. But as the American people have expressed, as shown by countless polls, Congress is failing at doing its job.

Simply put, the body “of the People,” voted in “by the People,” is not working “for the People.”

So what do we do about a dysfunctional Congress? When the governing process fails to function, reform is necessary. It is time to return to performance-based governing, restore order and effectiveness, re-establish a balance of power and re-create an environment in which Congress is trusted by the People.

Significant change in the legislative branch will require real actions and real work by those currently serving. Recognizing this, I have introduced with my democratic colleague, Congressman Dan Lipinski, the “Congress of Tomorrow Project.”

Our legislation, H. Con. Res. 28, was introduced on February 16th earlier this year and has garnered 50 co-sponsors, including 29 Republicans and 21 Democrats thus far. Our resolution calls for a joint committee, composed of 12 Representatives and 12 Senators, equally bipartisan, to study Congress. This body would be charged with a mandate to review the institution of Congress and to propose comprehensive reforms to make the institution efficient, effective, and accountable to taxpayers. The process would be open to the public and could draw on the expertise and experiences of the private sector.

This joint committee would first evaluate the legislative rules and procedures that control how Congress functions. This is a critical first step. The basic work of Congress isn’t getting done and much of it is due to amended rules and procedures passed over decades of time as the majority has shifted back and forth.

Second, it would seek to change the behavior of the legislators themselves, empowering them to participate in the legislative process, debate issues, encourage compromise, introduce amendments and get laws enacted. The atmosphere of hostility and antagonism must change.

This is not a new idea. Every 25 years over the past century, Congress has had to reevaluate itself to make significant changes in order to be effective and responsive to the American people.

Finally, the joint committee would focus on restoring three important relationships: the relationship between Members of Congress and their constituents, the relationship between the House and Senate, and the relationship between the Legislative and the Executive branches.

For how dysfunctional and toxic Congress has proven to be lately, I wouldn’t criticize anyone if they thought our idea a pipe dream. However, I would be quick to remind you that this is not a new idea. Such committees have been effective before. In fact, every 25 years over the past century, Congress has had to reevaluate itself to make significant changes in order to be effective and responsive to the American people. Each previous joint committee ultimately led to radical and necessary changes in Congress. The reason votes on the House Floor are recorded so America knows where their members stand on issues is a result of one of these endeavors. But the last time Congress did this was 23 years ago — coincidentally, the last time we passed all appropriations bills through regular order.

We have a lot of work to do, but I truly believe the Congress of Tomorrow Project is a step in the right direction towards restoring civility and trust in Congress once again.

As Abraham Lincoln said, “the best way to predict your future is to create it.” We have an opportunity to reshape Congress to be the representative body that leads our country to a prosperous future. Now is the time to act.

Darin LaHood represents the 18th District of Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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