University of Virginia students enrolled in a course on the fundamentals of Congress have been contemplating what reforms or changes might reduce the gridlock in Washington. On Tuesday, their local congressman joined the class for a candid discussion of how and why the system is not working.
Neither U.S. Rep. Robert Hurt (R-5th) nor the students suggested any easy fixes for the system, but Hurt did share his perspective on why the dysfunction is so intractable, and how Washington could learn a few things from Richmond.
The American people deserve a better Congress than what was on display during the recent government shutdown – which the class witnessed firsthand during an Oct. 8 visit to Capitol Hill – Hurt told about 30 students assembled in Garrett Hall for their Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy course, “Congress 101: Leadership Strategies,” taught by Batten professor Gerald Warburg.
“All of that could have been avoided if we in Congress, on the House side and the Senate side, had gone through the process of adopting budgets and appropriation measures over the previous year, like we were supposed to, like Congress used to do before I got there,” Hurt said.
“But Congress is not doing that right now, for a lot of different reasons,” including time, power and politics, he said.
Hurt illustrated some of the problems by contrasting how things are done in Washington with how Virginia’s General Assembly operates. A native of Chatham in Southside, Hurt served three terms in the House of Delegates, and three years in the Virginia Senate before joining Congress in 2011.
Hurt represents Virginia’s 5th District, the state’s largest, encompassing nearly 10,000 square miles – nearly as large as the state of Massachusetts, he said. Roughly triangle-shaped, with a wide base formed by a stretch of the Virginia-North Carolina border, the district stretches north nearly the full height of the commonwealth, reaching the edge of Loudoun and Clark counties, which border Maryland and West Virginia.
The district’s very first representative was James Madison, whose election opponent was James Monroe, Hurt told the class, adding with a grin, “It’s been all downhill ever since.”
In the General Assembly, “90 percent of the time bills that came before committee were in no way partisan,” he said. “Democrats and Republicans were working to make a bill better, or they were working to kill it.” There were exceptions that got lots of media attention, but those were exceptions, he said.
In the General Assembly, every bill gets a hearing, and “one way or another all bills get a vote,” Hurt said. In Congress, “no bill gets a vote unless the leadership introduces it. No one ever talks about it, but that’s a huge difference.”
Similarly, in Richmond anyone can attend any legislative hearing, step up to the podium and ask a question, “or confront any legislator or committee on the dais.”
In Washington, no one can speak unless invited to speak at a legislative hearing, which means hearings are “more political theater than actual legislating,” because committee leaders invite only those who will say what they want to hear.
The single most useful change in how Congress operates would be for the body to routinely introduce bills and work on them through a regular legislative process, Hurt said.
Instead, the leadership on all sides in Washington – both Republicans and Democrats, in the House, Senate and the executive branch – tend to maintain a standoff posture, waiting until the last minute before a deadline, not wanting to step forward and introduce legislation, Hurt said, which leaves no time for real legislative debate and deliberation. Instead, temporary measures like continuing resolutions are hashed out in rushed meetings between senior leaders in the House, Senate and executive branch, often behind closed doors.
The result is a “very, very small number of people making the decisions for everybody,” which runs counter to what should be the fabric of a democratic institution, Hurt said. “That doesn’t measure up, as far as I’m concerned.”
Instead, Congress should create more opportunities for people to work together, Hurt said. “You don’t know what might happen, what good might arise, until you sit down to start talking about things.”
Noting that the class is studying possible reforms in the legislative process, Maggie Ray, a second-year Master of Public Policy candidate, asked Hurt what he would change if he could make only one reform.
“It would be a balanced budget amendment,” Hurt said, explaining how that is another key difference between Richmond (the Virginia Constitution requires a balanced budget) and Washington. “Arguing over priorities for spending within the context of a balanced budget – that is a heck of a restraint on the use of taxpayer dollars. It drives a responsibility to the taxpayers, to the commonwealth and to all those who benefit from taxpayer dollars.
“In Washington, we don’t have that restraint,” without which current deficit spending is on track to create an “unsustainable future for our children,” he charged.
When another student asked what he might personally do to improve the effectiveness of Congress, Hurt pointed to efforts by himself and Republican colleagues to find places to work together with Democrats. “This Congress, I believe all of our Republican legislation we have introduced has Democratic co-sponsors,” he said.
Looking for areas where bipartisan compromise is possible is both good policy and practical because legislation must have a Democratic co-sponsor to have any hope of being passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate, he said.
“That wasn’t my idea,” he said. “That was James Madison’s idea.”