The Gilded Age of Congress

04/12/2017 02:53 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2017

Of all of his many ludicrous and inflammatory statements, “Perhaps it’s time to America was run like a business,” has been one of President Trump’s most roundly criticized. His opposition has used pithy responses on Twitter such as “America should be run like a business the same way I want my heart surgeon to be a plumber” and articles titled “No, Stupid, Government Should not be run Like a Business” to discredit this idea. In light of the Republican Congress’s recent inability to pass their health-care reform (a fact that has millions of Americans breathing a sigh of relief), perhaps it’s time to reevaluate our collective rejection of this statement.

Regardless of personal politics, an almost universal claim abounds in the United States today: our Congressmen are lazy, ineffective, and greedy. This claim is backed up irrefutably by hard numbers. Since the 1970s, the amount of legislation proposed by Congress has dropped nearly 50%. In the 93rd Congress (Jan 3, 1973- Dec 20, 1974), there were 2,272 separate pieces of legislation proposed that were voted on. 903 were passed, 772 were actually enacted. Zero failed to receive votes. In the most recent Congressional session, the 114th, there was a drop of nearly 400 pieces of major legislation that were voted on. A respectable 708 were passed, but the major failing of the most recent Congress has been enacting laws. Only 329 laws, less than half of the 93rd Congress, were enacted over the 114th session.

Besides enacting laws, another dangerous trend is rising in Congress. Over the first four sessions of Congress where the data was collected (93-96), zero bills received no major vote, and an average of 760 laws were enacted per session. In the four most recent sessions (111-114), a total of 111 proposed bills received no major vote, and the average amount of laws actually enacted has dropped to 324. This trend, towards the currently recognized ineffectuality of Congress, seems to have begun just after the 100th session. Since then, the lowest number of bills that died without a vote has been sixteen, and the number of laws enacted has decreased steadily with each session.

Trump ran on a platform that, among other (many unsavory) things, included his business acumen and deal-making ability. These were experiences and talents that few, if any, of the career politicians running against him could offer. This particular claim has, alongside a good deal of his other promises, been shown to be little more than bombastic smoke and delusional mirrors. Though the sample size is admittedly small, it is now apparent our president will have to work long and diligently in order to gain back the trust of even his most ardent supporters. The American people have proven themselves to be unsympathetic towards lies being told to them in the past; we can only hope this remains true today. Instead of relying on talents of dubious reality, the intangibles that he claims make him so great, perhaps it’s time Trump lay down hard and fast rules that incentivize Congressmen to do their jobs.

This is both impossible and ill-advised. For the checks and balances established in our government by the often prescient Founding Fathers to work, the president must be barred from any and all interference with the rules, powers, and regulations of the legislation, regardless of how infallible a leader he may stylize himself to be. Instead, we the American people have a responsibility to ourselves to demand that our interests are protected by the people we elect, who enjoy calling themselves public servants. We are the ones who must establish these hard and fast rules that incentivize all of Congress to do their jobs.

Modern Congressmen are being paid the highest salaries in the history of the two houses. Congress’s abominable laziness (let’s not forget they spend just 139 days in their respective houses on average per year) and extraordinary lack of production shockingly reminiscent of the Gilded Age of the early 1920’s. Just as that era, rampant with ill-advised investments, cartoonishly greedy tycoons, and corruption ended with the Great Depression, so too does this era, this Congressional Gilded Age, seem fated for disaster. Unfortunately, no public programs will help as they did in the Great Depression, no massive influx of cash can resuscitate Congress as it did industry in the Great Recession. The government cannot bail out itself.

The idea that government should be run like a business is usually derided by the truism that government does, unlike business, not exist to make money. The job of the government is to protect the interests and provide for the safety of their citizens. Rare is the Platonically ideal move; one advantageous both socially and economically. It is the government then which must many times ignore monetary gains in favor of looking out for their citizen’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

If Congressmen are so incompetent that they cannot pass bills- if they are so plainly useless at what they’ve been elected to do- there is absolutely no reason to allow them to keep their job. Currently, the advantages set in place that allow incumbents to retain their position are almost insurmountable; the reelection rate in Congress is 95%. One commonly proposed solution is term limits, mirroring those set in place for the office of president. The logic is apparent: if you don’t like your representative, they cannot stay on indefinitely. In 1994, a Republican majority House proposed a constitutional amendment with the attempt to limit all members of Congress to a maximum of twelve years of serving. After it failed in Congress, 23 state legislatures passed their own amendments setting term limits, but they were eventually blocked by the Supreme Court ruling such a law was unconstitutional without an official amendment in a 5-4 decision. Though it has failed in the past, setting a term remains a popular idea today, as seems a perfectly logical, albeit limited, solution to our problem of Congressional ineffectuality.

It isn’t. The idea of term limits does not address the issue of an unmotivated and self-interested Congress. In a world with Congressional term limits, getting elected would nearly guarantee a job where just every third day is spent in the office and the salary starts at $174,000, The incumbent reelection rate is unlikely to fall under this proposal, so perhaps the unsatisfying Congressman is gone sooner, but s/he is almost certainly replaced by somebody just as lazy and incompetent.

The entire system of election and, more importantly, reelection needs upheaval if these problems are to be fixed. Nobody in business who continually and predictably fails keeps their job; Congress should be the same. In an ideal world, the electorate would be able to select the right candidate to be their representative, weeding out the sub-par Congressmen at each election cycle. The data that shows Congress’s consistent failure to perform is available to the public, but it requires time and energy to seek out, which is something many working class people, those who are most affected by the legislation passed or not passed in Congress, simply do not have. As opposed to requiring the American people to do extra work to find a Congressman who can do a reasonable job, the American people should require Congressmen to do a reasonable job, or they will not be up for reelection.

As Congress is set up today, the job security of each member is such that they can safely continue to attenuate their output without fearing for their livelihood. This must change if we want them to begin working again. If certain minimum standards of work are put in place, an amendment which sets a number of days or hours-actually in Congress-required, floors for how many bills must be passed and proposed, and limits set to how much time can be spent outside the office campaigning for reelection, Congress immediately switches its priority from sustaining itself to doing the job its members were elected to do.

Establishing an amendment which sets a minimum number of bills that must be passed and enacted raises the problem of Congressmen passing meaningless bills in order to simply fill a quota. If Congress knows that a certain number of bills must be passed in order for all the members to retain their seats, it becomes increasingly likely that bills become laws for no other purpose, an outcome diametrically opposed to the interests of the American people. Far from more useless red tape and senseless bureaucracy, we need real legislation that will serve to protect our economic, personal, and cultural interests.

Laws are first proposed as bills in Congress, and they must have a sponsor in order to make it to the floor. This sponsor is typically a Congressmen who has some tie to the bill; most likely it is one which will affect the people he represents directly. The sponsoring of bills is the primary job of those elected to Congress, and, unsurprisingly, this duty has been neglected. In the 93rd-95th Congresses, each member of the House sponsored an average of 44 bills per session. In the three most recent sessions of Congress, this average has dropped to 17 bills sponsored per representative. While the Senate has not had quite the same drop in efficiency, the averages over the same time have fallen from 48 to 41 bills sponsored per senator.

Minimums for how many bills representatives and senators must sponsor individually must be set in place in order to account for and counteract the possibility of Congressmen simply passing empty bills. This number does not necessarily need to be as high as those that were the norm in the 1970s, but there is nothing to excuse the abominable inefficiency of today. Thirty-six bills should be sponsored by each member of Congress every year, making for an average of three per month, an average which falls between the extremes of today and the 1970s. This would require at least 15,660 pieces of proposed legislation in the House alone.

Over the past twenty-one sessions of Congress, about 85% of the pieces of legislation that are introduced go no further than a committee or subcommittee, meaning that roughly 2,350 bills would make it to the floor. Before 1995 (the 101st session of Congress), the average amount of bills enacted never dropped below 30%, and requiring a minimum of around the same for the Congressmen of today seems the best course of action. Bills that make it to the floor have already undergone an extensive process of drafting and redrafting, involving the sponsor's team and the committee who's responsibility the bill falls under. These people are some of the best educated in the United States, with access to the a vast amount of resources. Proposing that, given all these advantages, they fail less than 70% of the time is far from unreasonable.

It is not the responsibility of Congressmen to invent bills; it is their duty to take proposals from people in their districts and transform them into proposals that would benefit not only those people who reelect them, but the whole of the United Staes. Far from encouraging Congressmen to create a variety of meaningless bills, this system incentivizes them to pay more attention to their constituents, to work harder at making the ideas the people propose into strongly written bills viable in committees and on the floor.

Forcing Congress to act like a business in this one particular and limited way immediately forces capitalistic competition on our representatives and senators. Currently, they are able to act as a despotic oligarchy, a few select people hoarding legislative seats and the power and influence that comes with them. Changing to a system which requires sponsoring bills and passing laws in order to run for reelection from so concerned with running for reelection that few laws are passed and fewer enacted immediately forces Congressmen to compete with each other. Every Congressman wants to see as few members of the opposing party in their chamber as possible, and none want legislation which favors the opposing party to be passed either. Under the current system, even Congressmen who are viciously incapable of preventing the opposition from doing just this are still oftentimes reelected; the same is true for those who are unable to help their party pass beneficial legislation. Under the new amendment, Congressmen would have to sponsor well-formulated propositions from their districts and their teams, draft them into bills strong and balanced enough to garner bipartisan support within committees, and work with members of the opposing party in order to pass the bills and turn them into enacted laws.

Congressmen will not reform on their own. They will not increase their regulations, they will pass no amendments to lessen their power, and they will do no honest days work until they are forced to, but Congressional reform can and must happen. An amendment must be passed which establishes the requirements laid out above, or those similar to them. This will not be done in Congress, and we can never expect it to. This amendment must be passed by our state legislatures.

Such a movement will require an effort yet unseen in our country's history. Objects at rest remain so until acted on by an outside force; the citizens of the United States must be that outside force. For such a change to occur, two-thirds of the legislatures of our states must convene to propose an amendment and three-fourths of them must ratify it, a task which would be a monumental undertaking. Change of this magnitude will not happen unless We the People demand it does, participating in our government to ensure that it fails us no longer.