The 400-member New Hampshire House of Representatives takes approximately 30 seconds to vote on a bill compared to the 15 minutes taken by the 435 voting representatives in the U.S. House. It also has internal rules requiring that the chamber hold hearings on every piece of legislation introduced there and that the full chamber vote on every bill. No bill can be “killed” in committee and the voting schedule is entirely different. The Virginia State Senate adheres to a similarly efficient schedule, which dictates that lawmakers begin the day handing all business on the chamber floor before later breaking off to handle other tasks. Unlike Congress, nearly all state governments have language in their constitutions limiting the scope of bills to a single subject to prevent enormous “omnibus-style” bills.
With the Democratic Party now in control of both chambers of Congress as well as the Executive Branch, politicians and activists alike are urging the passage of radical legislation and policies addressing large-scale issues such as student debt, climate change, minimum wage, and discrimination. Before pursuing these time-consuming uphill battles, however, it’s important that they recognize how the complexity and disorganization of Congress’ existing legislative process has excluded everyday citizens from properly participating in their political process and created mass governmental inefficiency. In response to this exclusion, Congress should focus on restructuring internal legislative guidelines in order to simplify and strengthen scheduling and bill-writing policies.
Only 20% of Americans trust the federal government “to do the right thing.” 64% believe that this same lack of trust makes it harder for the U.S. to solve problems. Considering that the average American isn’t necessarily in possession of a college degree or particularly politically active, the incredibly complex, lengthy, and last-minute nature of many legislative bills are simply inaccessible to everyday constituents. It reinforces the “shady” or “underhanded” images of D.C. politics that the populist movement has embraced and used as motivation towards electing supposed outsiders. Part of the reason this change hasn’t already happened stems from these same “D.C. politics.” While many members of the current Congress are past members of their respective state legislatures, they’ve made little attempt to address congressional inefficiency in order to focus on fundraising, participate in partisan politics, or because they’ve found it impossible to pass any legislation without relying on less-transparent tactics.
In order to honor his ostensible commitment to increase political transparency and dedication to bipartisanship, President Biden, as the leader of the now-majority Democratic Party, should urge an overhaul of congressional and federal organization in order to improve the general public’s understanding of the policies being passed and leave less opportunity for bills to be altered from their original intents. Beyond increasing efficiency and governmental capabilities, this overhaul reaffirms the fundamental democratic ideal of power originating in the hands of all people rather than just those privileged enough to have access to it. While such an overhaul seems like an impossible feat, state governments have already adopted simple strategies that could be integrated into the federal government’s current framework.
A key fault of federal bills is not actually the language of the original copy, but rather the comically impossible-to-follow proposed amendments referenced in future iterations of them. When amending proposed or existing laws, Congressional bills don’t actually show the existing law and only describe the changes, frequently resulting in references to other sources that make it practically impossible for any average person to understand the revisions taking place. State legislatures, however, show the current law alongside the intended changes, with new language underlined or highlighted and deleted language struck through.
Another area of frustration is with “last-minute” add-ons that frequently find their way onto Congressional bills minutes before they’re considered. Though they’re legal and oftentimes take place when politicians are looking to “sneak in” unrelated policies, these add-ons frequently result in situations where politicians are voting on bills with little knowledge of their contents. Adopting state governments’ anti-rider regulations, which limit a bill to one subject or allow for line-item vetoes, as well as mirroring President Obama’s commitment to posting legislation on the White House website five days before signing it into law would effectively address this issue. Internal Congressional rules could also be altered to include a mandatory minimum time-period for bill-reading prior to votes being called.
Lastly, general technological advancement and lackluster Congressional policy engagement are contributing to a public perception that representatives are out-of-touch and, in some cases, lack understanding of how modern society functions. Mark Zuckerberg’s infamous Senate testimony in which he explained the concept of ad-based payments and general workings of the internet exemplified this to many. Even attempting to find a bill on Congress’ outdated website is difficult without prior knowledge of its committee name or origins. While there’s still plenty of technological advancement present in politics, it’s essential that Congress quickly adapt to the needs of a U.S. population that is disproportionately younger than its own and which is more reliant on technology than ever for everyday purposes.
These outlined changes serve not only to increase political transparency and maximize efficiency, but also to strengthen the public’s ability to hold their representatives accountable and create their own opinions on legislation from across the political spectrum. Investigations have shown that Congressional representatives, in the interest of saving time and political gain, often back legislation written by corporations, industry groups, and think tanks known as ‘model bills.’ An analysis led by the Center for Public Integrity found tens of thousands of bills with identical phrases and at least 10,000 bills almost entirely copied from model legislation introduced nationwide, 2,100 of which were signed into law. While this will still occur even in the face of changes proposed in this article, the ability of the public – as well as independent political watchdog groups and political challengers – to examine and criticize the legislation would be greatly improved. Congressional committee hearings, where citizens can directly address their representatives, are also relatively ineffective because Congress’ unpredictable schedule prevents its members from meaningfully participating in them. Adopting these scheduling changes, as well as state governmental hearing policies that promote public participation, would benefit governmental transparency and public input.
Of course, the federal government must have a distinct overall setup from those of state governments and is significantly more complex overall. It is also important to acknowledge that long bills aren’t inherently bad or elitist, particularly when they concern incredibly nuanced subjects like healthcare or economic reform that require specific language that leaving little room for loopholes or misunderstandings. However, reformers should still focus primarily on simplifying and clarifying the bill-writing process, as well as general internal rules present in the Legislative branch, as first steps towards longlasting commitments to future transparency and inclusivity. With politicians like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Donald Trump displaying an increasing appeal to the average American and the populist ideals of their respective political wings, this proposed change offers a unique opportunity for bipartisan collaboration and support. Should the federal government seek to genuinely increase efficiency and better public support and understanding of all legislation, these proposed bill changes are an essential, fundamental step towards doing so with little resource expenditure.
Image: Original Illustration by Naya Lee Chang