4 New Year's Resolutions for the 114th Congress

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As we ring in 2015 and look ahead to a new year, many of us will make (and later break?) New Year’s resolutions. Likely no one is in greater need of a fresh start than the new Congress that was sworn in yesterday.

Congressional approval ratings are at near-record lows, and the institution and its leaders are the constant brunt of jokes on social media and late-night comedy shows. But is it true, as President Obama and others have criticized, that the outgoing Congress has been the “least productive Congress in modern history”?

Yes, if we measure productivity by number of laws enacted. The 113th Congress (2013-2014) is projected to enact fewer laws than any Congress since at least 1973, the year govtrack.us began keeping such records. The pattern follows a general downward trend in congressional productivity: 772 laws were enacted during the 93rd Congress (1973-1974), 472 laws were enacted during the 103rd Congress (1993-1994), and the most recent projections suggest that 251 new laws will be in place at the close of the 113th Congress.

Quantity doesn’t necessarily mean quality—simple counts cannot differentiate between minor tweaks in existing policy, giant omnibus bills that package together a wide range of proposals, and everything in between. But the trend is striking.

Perhaps this sharp decline in productivity and perceived ineffectiveness has led to these historically low public approval ratings. In recent Gallup polls, a mere 15 percent of Americans say they approve of how Congress is handling its job. More than one in five Americans (22 percent) in a Gallup poll in July said they want to replace all members of Congress and start over. Party leadership of Congress fares better than the institution as a whole, but even these numbers are telling. In the most recent Gallup poll, 26 percent of respondents said they approved of Republicans in Congress; Democrats did slightly better, with a 34 percent approval rating.

Clearly, Congress has an image problem. But 2015 offers Congress the opportunity to prove the people wrong, regain their trust, and reassert itself as a legitimate and essential part of American government. Rightly executed, the role of Congress is to work alongside the president to generate new ideas and offer an essential check on executive power. When it is functioning well, Congress can propose new programs, provide oversight over the executive branch, and hold back presidential overreach. In light of that, here are our New Year’s resolutions for the 114th Congress: 

(1)  Stop threatening government shutdowns and pass spending bills on time. If there is one thing guaranteed to lower Congressional approval ratings, this is it. Stop the political gamesmanship. Threats of government shutdowns capture media attention, complicate the bargaining process, and raise public ire. Members of Congress need the political space to do the hard work behind the scenes so they can reach agreements on spending bills and keep government running.

(2)  Pass immigration legislation. If Congress wants to be a legitimate player on the immigration issue, they need to send meaningful legislation to President Obama this year. Complaining about executive action and trying to limit funding for it does nothing to address the many problems with existing immigration laws. Members of Congress have been working on solutions for many years, and several proposals have garnered significant support. The president has challenged Congress to send him legislation—now is the time to meet that challenge by cooperating across party lines to get immigration bills to his desk.

(3)  Pass corporate tax reform. Both parties agree that we need significant corporate tax reform to lower overall rates and tighten deductions. The United States has the highest national statutory rate and second highest effective rate of all developed nations. President Obama has called for corporate tax reform in State of the Union addresses and national press conferences; Republican leaders, including incoming House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan, have publicly called for rate reductions. The average corporate tax rate has decreased in every region of the world over the past decade, making it even more pressing that Congress pass reforms to keep and attract investment.

(4)  Cooperate across party lines. Substantive legislation almost always requires genuine bipartisan cooperation. Leaders in both chambers should look for opportunities to partner with Democrats where they can find meaningful agreement. In recent interviews, incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he plans to emulate Henry Clay’s combination of principle and compromise to help the Senate function again. Such a strategy, if implemented, offers promise for returning the Senate to its historical place as a chamber known for bipartisan cooperation.

It is well past time for Congress to once again become a serious player in American politics. The culture of legislative gridlock won’t change overnight, but the incoming 114th Congress has the motive and opportunity to chart a new direction.

- Amy E. Black is Associate Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College and author of Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace, and Reason. Kira Dittman is a political science major at Wheaton College.