Douglas Cohn: Changing Congress’ rules could unlock some gridlock

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WASHINGTON — One thing most Americans agree on is that Congress is terrible, the worst in memory and well deserving its abysmal 7 percent approval rating. Having elections every two and four years doesn’t seem to fix anything, and voters are beginning to wonder if our system is broken. Surely the Founding Fathers didn’t intend this – or did they?

The gridlock we’re seeing on Capitol Hill is the direct result of a system of checks and balances designed to bring government to a halt under certain circumstances. From the Republican point of view, the Senate is the problem. It’s where bills passed by the House go to languish and die.

Democrats fault the House, or more precisely a faction of the House, Tea Party Republicans, who came to Congress determined to put a stop to what they consider out-of-control federal spending. The tea party forced last year’s government shutdown, and they’re fighting the Obama administration’s emergency request for money to care for and to process the flow of unaccompanied minors from Central America.

Republicans blame the Democratically-controlled Senate for the breakdown in legislating while Democrats fault the Republican-controlled House. These partisan tensions either have the Founding Fathers smiling, or ruing the day they didn’t envision the flaw in the Constitution that makes this impasse not only possible, but likely.

The flaw is that the Founding Fathers could not envision a Congress that would be held in such low esteem at the same time that individual lawmakers would be held in such high esteem in their home districts that they could repeatedly get reelected.

How can this be fixed? If the voters keep returning the same people to Congress, there is little hope for change. If elections don’t fix the problem, maybe the Constitution needs to be changed — some tweaking or freshening up to bring it into the 21st century.

That may sound appealing, but the bar is so high for constitutional change that it’s almost not worth contemplating. To amend the Constitution, a two-thirds vote from the House and Senate is required, and then any change must be ratified by two-thirds of the states. Those numbers are unimaginable in today’s red versus blue partisan environment.

If the Founding Fathers could speak to us today, they would probably tell us to pull up our socks and get to work. Don’t blame the people who created the system, blame the folks who are implementing it. For starters, they might say, they never anticipated the filibuster, that’s an invention of the Senate. The House and Senate get to make their own rules, and the Senate chose to have a filibuster.

It’s been reined in over time from 67 to 60 votes, and Democrats in the current Congress eliminated the filibuster on executive nominees, with the exception of Supreme Court appointments. Republicans angry over the rule change are exacting retribution by slowing down all appointments. Ambassadors awaiting confirmation for foreign posts are in limbo sometimes more than a year. Still, some change in a body devoted to tradition is possible.

In the House, the Founding Fathers could never have imagined that a leader or a committee or a coalition could hold up a bill and prevent it from coming to the floor and getting a vote. A rule change in the House that said every bill introduced would receive an up or down vote on the floor would radically change how Congress does business.

A vote for every bill is what the Founding Fathers intended, and it would bring us closer to a parliamentary system where coalitions evolve to pass legislation. It would lessen the power of fringe blocs like the tea party holding veto power and grinding the business of the people to a screeching halt. The system is broken, but it can be fixed as further explained in “Congress, Cliffs & Common Sense” available on Amazon.