Over the last 12 months, Change the Rules has documented how the structure of the current political system – the “business of politics” – is failing our country. In this blog, we explore what the system looks and feels like from the inside, and why it’s leading lawmakers to leave Congress.
The 2018 Exodus from Congress
A staggering number of Congressional lawmakers decided to leave congress last year: 53 House members chose not to run for reelection in 2018. A recent report from Issue One, Why We Left Congress, details the reasons for this exodus. It also provides a window into the disfunction in the legislative branch and raises the question, “What will it take to fix this broken system?”
Retiring Rep Trey Gowdy (R-SC) has lamented, “Do I think I am making a difference? No. Not from a legislative standpoint.” What would lead him to this conclusion, and the resulting frustration? Three features of the current system in Congress are particularly noteworthy.
Fewer Committee Hearings. There is a precipitous decline in the number of committee hearings in both the House and Senate. Congressional hearings are the traditional way a legislative body fulfills its mandate to consider and enact laws.
Less Floor Debates. Because of an increased use of “closed rules” by both the Republican and Democratic leadership, congress spends less time debating a multitude of amendments that previously helped members build alliance and find common ground for cooperation. For example, in the 115th Congress, Paul Ryan and Republican leadership had the final say on amendments to almost every bill.
Three-Day Week in Washington. Lawmakers arrive in Washington late Monday afternoon for evening votes and fly home on Thursday evening. Members say this allows them to spend more time in their districts. Does iit come at the cost of building relationships with their colleagues and debating legislation in D.C.?
How Did We Get Here?
Congressional observers say former House Speaker Newt Gingrich bears much of the responsibility for initiating these changes, beginning in 1995. Gingrich is credited with “reorienting the congressional schedule around filling war chests, shortening the official work week so that members had time to dial for dollars.” He also “used closed rules as a way to make the floor schedule more predictable for members who needed time to fundraise.”
This “simplification” of the rank and file congressional role has only accelerated in the 20 years since the Gingrich era. The shifts – less time debating ideas, less time in committee hearings, less time in Washington – are by design a way to centralize the control of party leaders and, also, meet the demands of raising money as elections have become increasingly expensive affairs.
The impacts from these shifts are entirely predictable, for the country and for the incumbents. As the report observes, “Congressional observers have pointed out that serving in congress is miserable for anyone who actually wants to get things done.”
Fundraising is Taking its Toll
Outgoing Rep Ryan Costello (R-PA) estimates that he spent five to 10 hours a week fundraising during his first term. However, fundraising demands do more than take time away from the “real work” of congress. As we have described in other blogs, the current system incentivizes members of Congress to seek cash from the interests they regulate and elevate fundraising skills over policy knowledge when it comes to who shapes legislation.
Departing Rep Thomas Massie (R-KY) said, “The incentive structure is set up to get you to sell out to lobbyists because they are the only ones who have the currency you need… to buy your committee assignments.”
Term Limits for Republican Committee Chairman
The 52 members of congress who chose not to run for reelection include eight Republican committee chairs as well as House Speaker Paul Ryan. The ostensible reason for introducing these limits – by House Speaker Gingrich in 1995 – was to give junior members a shot at leadership positions.
Former Rep Tom Davis (R-VA) believes that one reason the rule was imposed was because committee chairman had become too powerful; which would be consistent with the overall consolidation of leadership power by both parties in the ensuing 20 years.
What Will it Take to Fix this Broken System?
The root cause of the current political dysfunction is a self-reinforcing system that is generally working well for the two major political parties, and the incumbents within those parties. As unpleasant as it may be, money is pouring into both the Republican and Democratic “eco-systems” – the parties, candidates, political consultants, lobbyists, think-tanks, partisan media outlets etc. The facade of pseudo-competition exacerbates the focus on ideology, negativity and “the least bad candidate.”
The paradox of the system can be expressed in two numbers. In 2018 (as in 2016), Congress had a 17 percent overall approval rating and a reelection rate of more than 95 percent.
Can the System Contribute to Fixing Itself?
In the face of inevitable outside pressure, many organizations will try to adapt. Think of Kodak defending its core business in film while trying to adopt to digital cameras.
Rarely do organizations reinvent themselves from the inside (Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012.) As Adam Hartung notes in Create Marketplace Disruption, mature organizations notably try to “extend and defend” what they do currently, without straying far from what historically has been so successful for them. Nevertheless, what can we say in building a positive case for change from the inside?
- HR 1: House Democrats Introduce Anti-Corruption Bill as a Symbolic First Act. As noted in our Money in Politics blog series, this may signal that Democrats are sensing a politically viable platform in 2020 – responding to grassroots momentum in voting rights, political money, redistricting and ethics.
- Congressional Committee Established to Consider Reforms for the 116th Congress. As reported by The Hill, “Congress makes bold move with new committee to fix how it runs… An overwhelming majority of Democrats and Republicans voted to create a select committee to improve the way the House functions and provide a real opportunity for more lasting change that citizens want to see.” The potential areas for reform might include ways to improve debate in the House.
- New Leaders to Watch. The Leadership Now Project is an outgrowth of Harvard Business School alumni committed to a “sustained and strategic engagement to fix democracy.” While not exactly a powerhouse in the political landscape, this initiative does represent a relatively new type of engagement by the business community. This group vetted and supported congressional midterm candidates that met their criteria for high-quality and principles candidates for office. Thirteen of the 19 candidates they supported were elected to the 116th Congress. To us at Change the Rules, the profiles of these new elected officials present an inspiring case for a new class “political outsiders” working to change the system from within.
Change from the Outside is Essential & Gaining Momentum
The RNC and DNC are locked into a “success formula” that works for them but is failing the country. This was one of the major insights from The Catherine Gehl and Michael Porter Harvard study of U.S politics. As business strategists, we here at Change the Rules are well aware of the dynamics of market disruption. In fact, Change the Rules board member Adam Hartung has written an entire book on this subject, Create Marketplace Disruption.
In the business of politics, the barriers to genuine competition are so high that the structure of the industry – the rules that determine the incentives and tactics required to be elected and re-elected – need to be changed. Both the voters and the elected official are being chewed up by the same dynamics. At least the incumbents are getting re-elected. Whereas voters get virtually nothing beyond ideology and negativity. The system is in a self-reinforcing downward spiral.
Given this, the remedy is to find a way to shift to more competition, more participation and finding the proper role for money. As we have highlighted in the blog post, 4 Tactics to Open Competition in U.S. Elections, the list of specific vehicles to accomplish these shifts include gerrymandering reform, adoption of the National Popular Vote compact, increased voter access (including at-home voting), adoption of ranked choice voting, financial transparency, limiting the power of Super political action committees (PACs), open primaries, adoption of various types of anti-corruption acts and opening the presidential debates.
The three tactics employed to create these “marketplace disruptions” are ballot initiatives, direct legislative pressure (lobbying) and legal challenges. This is the outside-in strategy. And it is working. Visit Change The Rules to continue to track future momentum.