Democrats are now the ruling party in the House of Representatives. Congratulations America, our creaking constitutional machinery hasn't completely collapsed yet!
This naturally raises the question of priorities. With a decade left to cut carbon emissions by half, the crooks in the White House, the slowly-collapsing medical system, and about a dozen other screaming emergencies, it's naturally hard to say which thing should get top billing.
But I have a different suggestion: Democrats in Congress need to figure out how to legislate and govern rapidly again. The sheer number of problems means we can't afford to spend an entire year goofing around with penny-ante reforms, as Democrats did in 2009-10 with ObamaCare. Congress once could walk and chew gum. It ought to be possible to do so again.
Reading historical accounts of what Congress used to be able to do seems like reading about a different country. Here is William T. Leuchtenberg on the Second 100 Days, which happened over the early summer of 1935:
Roosevelt insisted on the passage of four major pieces of legislation: the social security bill, the Wagner labor proposal, a banking bill, and a public-utility holding company measure. A few days later, he added a fifth item of "must" legislation: a "soak the rich" tax scheme. In addition, he demanded a series of minor measures, some of them highly controversial, which in any other session would have been regarded a major legislation … Over a long period Congress debated the most far-reaching reform measures it had ever considered. In the end, Roosevelt got every item of significant legislation he desired. [Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal]
Of course, that was an unusually productive session. But it illustrates an important difference between modern Congress and most of previous American history: the ability to work on lots of different things at once, and get them all done quickly. It took the 111th Congress — which sat from 2009-10 and was itself the most productive in decades — more than a year to negotiate and pass just ObamaCare, which wasn't even that good. The same is true of the Dodd-Frank financial reform package on both counts. (That's still a lot better than the last Congress, which was one of the least productive in recent history despite one party controlling both houses and the presidency.)
So what needs to happen? Probably the most important thing is getting rid of the filibuster (which allows any 40 senators to block legislation and is used on almost everything these days). This was the biggest problem for the 2009-10 Congress, where decently good stuff would come out of the House, only to be badly eroded in conference because the loathsome Joe Lieberman was the Senate swing vote. Then delays would pile up from negotiations and because breaking a filibuster takes tons of Senate floor time. (And on the merits, the Senate is already a hideously undemocratic institution, and allowing senators representing as little as 11 percent of the U.S. population to stop any legislation is unjustifiable on its face.)
Of course, the Senate is still controlled outright by Republicans, which would stymie anything good even without the filibuster. (If Democrats do take control in 2021, they should immediately make D.C. and Puerto Rico states to restore democratic rights to Americans in those places and boost their Senate margin.)
But perhaps just as important is members of Congress re-building the institution's own capacity. President Roosevelt was an important part of passing sweeping reforms in 1933 and 1935, but just as important were the dozens of representatives and senators who focused on various subjects. And due to simple division of labor, things could happen much more quickly and efficiently. Sen. Robert Wagner (D-N.Y.) in particular was the key force behind the labor rights sections of the National Industrial Recovery Act, and the later National Labor Relations Act, which led to a huge surge in union organizing (and then Democratic votes).
Simple money could help a lot. Congressional committees have lost much of their institutional knowledge due to comparatively miserly staff pay and lack of funding for research and investigations. An underrated part of governing is simply finding out what is happening — which is hard to do if you don't pay top dollar for quality staff and the tools they need.
Congress also used to have much more institutional capacity, with things like the Office of Technology Assessment to provide non-partisan expertise. That agency was shut down by Newt Gingrich, and others have been gradually cored out from Republican austerity, because conservatives figure that lobotomizing Congress can only help the rich escape taxes and regulation.
Finally, there is institutional confidence. As Congress has become sclerotic, dysfunctional, and unpopular, power has flowed to the presidency. Both up-and-coming politicos and the public pay much greater attention to the presidency these days, as it seems pointless to expect anything out of the legislature. Mere three-term representatives are speculating about leapfrogging directly to the Oval Office, because why bother fiddling around in Congress for decades getting nothing done?
But Congress still has enormous constitutional authority, which could be restored with a committed effort. Being an important member of Congress used to mean something. People would make whole careers out of being on one or two committees — and satisfying ones, instead of doing a couple terms, running for president, and then cashing out to work for Raytheon or whatever.
No doubt there are a number of institutional problems I have forgotten or overlooked. But a cohort of representatives and senators dedicated to reclaiming the constitutional prerogatives of Congress could figure it out. Indeed, they must do so if America is to address all its howling emergencies in anything like a timely fashion.
In 2019 and beyond, let's make Congress work again.