A Modest Proposal for the 21st Century
No man’s life, liberty or property is safe
While the legislature is in session.
— Attributed to Judge Gideon J. Tucker in the case of The Estate of A. B. (1866)
This week I use this space to offer a suggestion that will save the taxpayers money, increase the efficiency of government and enable those in Congress to more accurately reflect voters’ wills. The only surprising thing is that no one has come up with this idea before now. Its genesis is the comment of Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, following Antonin Scalia’s death. He said that since it had been 17 months since the voters last had a chance to express their opinions on how the government should function, it would be a mistake for the Senate to consider a Supreme Court nominee before the next election. After carefully considering his comment and the fact that his concerns apply to everything Congress does, henceforth Congress should only meet every other year. If Congress meets only during the 12 months immediately following an election, it can be sure it has a good sense of what the public wants and act accordingly. That will, obviously, make the democratic process more democratic.
One question that may be asked, if my proposal is adopted, is whether Congress can get its work done if it only meets every other year. That can easily be addressed by doubling the number of days it meets in the years it is in session. In 2013 the House of Representative was in session for 126 days, in 2014 113 days and in 2015, 132 days. In 2016 it is scheduled to be in session for 111 days. The Senate, on the other hand, was in session for 164 days and in 2016 is slated to be in session for 149 days.
If the every other year practice were already in effect, in 2017 the House would work 222 days. Although the Senate could not double the number of days it is in session, it is hard to believe it cannot compress its work into one year, Of course, if this is to work, there will have to be some changes in practices in both chambers. Senator McConnell has already shown how that can be done.
He has instructed his colleagues not to waste any time meeting with Merrick Garland, the person selected by the president to fill the seat left vacant by Justice Scalia’s death since too much time has elapsed between the last election and his nomination. That practice can be followed when other presidential nominations are made in election years. In addition, the House and Senate can limit the number of hearings they conduct. Consider the Benghazi hearings.
According to the Benghazi Research Center of October 14, 2015, there have been 32 Congressional Hearings before assorted Senate and House committees at a total cost of more than $20 million. During those hearings 2,780 questions were asked by members of the committees. If Congress only meets every other year it could cut such hearings by half or three quarters without making the hearings less effective since they’ve not produced any useful information thus far. Similarly, the House could save time by not, for example, voting 63 times to repeal Obamacare. One or two votes that fail without there being any change in the make up of the chamber is probably more than enough to make the point. Another way Congress can get all its work done in one year is to quit appointing multiple committees to investigate the same things.
In 2015, three congressional investigations were conducted into events that had not taken place but appeared to have taken place because of a fraudulent video about Planned Parenthood. The individuals who made that fake video have been criminally indicted by a Texas Grand Jury for their actions in producing that video. After the three Congressional committees found no misconduct by Planned Parenthood, in October 2015 another panel was appointed and it conducted a public hearing on March 1, 2016, two months after creators of the video had been indicted. That sort of a hearing would probably have to be cancelled if Congress were only in session every other year.
Another suggestion is that Congress cut back on the number of hearings it conducts with administration officials. A good example of how that can be done was set in February of this year. On February 9, 2016, President Obama sent Congress his last annual budget proposal. A tradition going back 41 years provides that the House and Senate budget committees give the president’s budget director an invitation to testify about the proposed budget. No sooner was the budget submitted than the respective chairmen stated they would not invite the budget director to testify before their committees. That was probably done to save time and could become the standard under my proposal.
Once adopted, the proposal will require some getting used to. However, it will certainly improve the mental health of the country when the amount of time Congress can embarrass itself and those who elected it, is cut in half.