The parties’ leaders have displaced committees in shaping legislation: In the 113th Congress (2013-2015) 40 percent of major legislation reached the House floor without a committee report. Most members are thereby marginalized, lack occasions for developing relationships across the aisle, become insular and focus grimly on re-election to their unsatisfying jobs. So, the members who linger in a curdled Congress are the least admirable: They don’t care that they don’t matter.
A few, such as Kilmer and Graves, do. Their report’s most controversial proposal is the return of “earmarks” — member-directed spending that the report gives the anodyne label “community-focused grants.” The report’s reasoning is that members know better than executive branch decisionmakers what their districts need. But the most important reason for forthrightly embracing pork is that legislative bargaining is healthy because the alternative is the majority discouraging heterodox views within its ranks and treating the minority as irrelevant. Bargaining is additive: Support for A, B and C is purchased by including D, E and F. This is a tolerable transaction cost of democracy.
In 1789, there were three executive agencies: the Departments of State, Treasury and War. Today, the report’s most stunning sentence says: “While there is no official inventory of federal agencies, one recent count puts the current total at 278 distinct agencies.” So, Congress is not even certain of the components of, and hence cannot meaningfully control, the agglomeration of bureaucracies it has created. Modernization might begin by counting.