Restoring representation: 10 ways to help congressional committees get results

Immediately after taking the gavel, Speaker Mike Johnson pledged to decentralize power in the House of Representatives. The committees are key to making that promise reality.  

Committees are venues for applying members’ knowledge, experience, and resources within a manageable space for deliberation. The American people need empowered committees to update federal programs for society’s changing needs and to take back the arbitrary power that the administrative state lords over the country. 

Unfortunately, Congress has grown accustomed to agencies creatively interpreting vague and outdated statutes. But the Supreme Court has begun to police the proper separation of powers, and rulings in several pending cases such as Loper Bright v. Raimondo could push additional legislative powers back to Congress. 

In any case, Congress should re-empower itself as the federal government’s principal policymaking body. The House took positive steps in its January 2023 rules package, and Congress can do much more to support effective legislating for the people while expanding opportunities for members of Congress to contribute to policymaking. 

Here are 10 ways to help congressional committees get results.  

  1. Better budgeting: Congress must repair the dysfunctional federal budget process with a range of transformative reforms and other useful upgrades. A comprehensive budget with reasonable deficit-reducing targets, sustainable automatic enforcement, and additional guardrails could educate members on existing policies, re-invigorate committees, and give Congress greater ability and desire to revisit longstanding programs. Congress’ power of the purse has become so weak that the current administration attempted to spend nearly $1 trillion without congressional approval for taxpayers to assume student loan debt, and it has otherwise abused emergency authorities to advance an agenda that Congress has never approved. 
  2. Consequences for expired authorizations: House and Senate rules prohibiting appropriations for programs without an active authorization of appropriations are routinely waived or ignored. This involves hundreds of programs that collectively spend more than half a trillion dollars each year, including our diplomatic corps (last authorized in 2003) and most of the Department of Justice (2009). Legislation like Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers’ Unauthorized Spending Accountability Act to set program-level limits on unauthorized appropriations could push the authorizing committees to update those programs. 
  3. Clear expectations: Republican conference (House, Senate) and Democratic caucus (House, Senate) rules don’t – but could – explicitly pair the power of committee leaders with the responsibility to manage all laws in their jurisdictions. The conferences and caucuses should be clear that committee leaders’ main job is facilitating reviews and updates of statutory laws through appropriate multi-year timelines. 
  4. Index of responsibilities: No public document matches standing committees with the laws they should oversee. House Rule X(1) and Senate Rule XXV only match committees with general subject areas. Such an index could reduce the learning curve for new members and staff, clarify lines of authority, and help members connect their interests, backgrounds, and district priorities to committee work. 
  5. Guaranteed floor time: Even the most publicly spirited committee chair won’t keep working through challenging negotiations that lead nowhere. Committee chairs could take turns bringing committee-reported legislation to the floor along the lines of House Rule 14(4). Alternatively, committee-reported bills in the House with sufficient bipartisan support could get priority, since they’d be more likely to pass the Senate.  
  6. Committees as microcosms: Forging agreements in committees that match each chamber overall requires that committee membership of both parties is close to a “microcosm” of each party, as then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy put it. Representative samples on each committee would include ideological commitments as well as regional, seniority, temperamental, occupational, and other characteristics. 
  7. Prioritize committee work: House and Senate rules or leader protocols could instruct the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Government Accountability Office, House and Senate Legislative Counsel, and the Library of Congress to prioritize requests related to members’ committee assignments. Such a focus would reinforce committees as the primary — but by no means exclusive — venue for formulating, considering, and advancing policy. 
  8. Readable legislation: Most states print bills to show proposed changes to existing laws in their full context. Bringing that practice to Congress, such as with Rep. Alex Mooney’s Readable Legislation Act, would reduce the time, specialized knowledge, and effort needed to read and understand a bill. 
  9. Align jurisdictions: Senate and House authorizing committee jurisdictions don’t match each other or the 12 Appropriations subcommittees. Bringing them into greater alignment would improve Congress’ ability to advance legislation and to conduct oversight. 
  10. Committee stability: Senate committee slots and funding reflect the ratio of the party caucuses. In contrast, House committee funding is two-thirds to the majority and one-third to the minority. The ratios of House committee slots disproportionately favor the majority party. House adoption of Senate practices would expand House capacity for legislating by protecting institutional memory in both parties, reducing the destructive discontent of being in the minority, and improving committee members’ sense of proposals’ prospects on the House floor. 

Centralization of power in Congress has coincided with a growing, unaccountable administrative state. Speaker Johnson’s commitment to bottom-up solutions is a golden opportunity for the people’s representatives to reclaim their legislative powers while reducing bureaucratic discretion. 

The American people need Congress to be the forum for solving federal problems. Congress should seize this moment to drive more effective and accountable policymaking through empowered committees. 

Kurt Couchman is senior fellow in fiscal policy at Americans for Prosperity.