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How to Fix Our Legislatures

The trick is to hold legislatures accountable, even when the system is oriented around individual legislators.
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A joint  session of the Senate and House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Drop of Light/Shutterstock)

A joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Drop of Light/Shutterstock)

You don't have to be following the news very closely to come to the conclusion that Congress has serious problems. The recent fights in the House over the speakership, capping off several years of brinksmanship over the budget and repeated threats to destroy the nation's credit rating, suggest a legislature that is divided to the point of dysfunction. It's no wonder that the president often seeks ways to get around a Congress that either can't or won't act on many issues.

But the nation's legislative problems are hardly limited to the federal level. Many state legislatures have been steadily losing power to their governors, and citizens report declining confidence in their elected legislators at the national, state, and even municipal level.

How do we fix a collective problem when our tools are only geared to work on individuals?

Declining trust in legislatures is a familiar theme in American politics. Basically, people are prone to blaming Congress, their state legislature, or their city council for current problems, but the only instrument people have to punish or reward is directed at their own individual representatives. More often than not, people tend to like the job that their own incumbent is doing while despising the institution. Politicians understand this and have perfected the art of running for office by running against the institution they seek to join.

This presents a real mismatch. Our legislatures have real problems, but the only means of accountability citizens have—their vote—is aimed at legislators. (And even that is a weak cudgel; voters have little idea of what their state or local officials are doing and tend just to blame or credit them for what's going on at the national level.) How do we fix a collective problem when our tools are only geared to work on individuals?

A recent report by the Strategic Issues Program at the University of Denver sought to address this very issue. (Disclosures: I work at the university, and I testified before this panel, although not specifically on this issue.) Basically, the report recommends a way for the legislature itself, and not just individual legislators, to be held accountable for its agenda and its ability, or lack thereof, to act on it. The report "calls for legislative leaders from both parties to develop a collaborative annual legislative agenda for the institution, rather than separate party agendas as is the current practice in many legislatures." More specifically:

[T]he panel recommends that legislative bodies adopt, by statute or constitutional amendment, a two-part legislative accountability process focused on (1) identifying key issues facing the nation, state or locality—matters of strategic significance—and (2) reporting on actions taken to address those issues.

They identify this process as Clear Legislative Accountability Reporting, or CLEAR. The idea is to have leaders of the chamber, not just of the respective parties, agree on an agenda for the coming legislative session. That doesn't mean they have to agree on what exactly would be done. "Produce legislation on health insurance that seeks to expand insurance coverage, lower costs, and protect patient choice" could actually work as an agenda item. The parties could still have very different ideas of how to achieve those goals, and they could still work fiercely against each other.

But the idea is that observers—pundits, reporters, candidates, and voters themselves—would have a yardstick to determine whether the chamber is actually setting appropriate goals and meeting them. There are really two points of accountability here: the setting of a goal and the progress toward that goal. An inability for chamber leaders across party lines to even come up with an agenda of what they're going to talk about would be damaging and very telling about how or whether the chamber is functioning. But assuming they can come up with a handful of items to discuss, it would be easy to determine whether they've actually met those goals.

This strikes me as a modest but achievable reform. The very process of chamber leaders sitting down together to plan out an agenda would likely be a beneficial one. It likely wouldn't do much to mitigate partisanship, but it could allow for a legislative business to be more thoughtfully planned out with fewer surprises or roadblocks. This could be particularly helpful for many state legislatures, whose session lengths are limited by custom or even by the constitution.

Such a reform would certainly not fix the problems of the United States Congress overnight. But given that politicians basically always say that Congress is a mess and only they can fix it, it would be nice to have some measurements along those lines. Congress should get some collective credit when it has a productive session, and it should rightly be held responsible when it breaks down. Given the importance of the legislature to our lives, the ability to judge it as a collective would be most welcome.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.