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Lessons from the History of Reform

Lessons from the History of Reform

(p.255) 16 Lessons from the History of Reform
Congress Overwhelmed
Ruth Bloch Rubin
University of Chicago Press

On occasion, members of Congress attempt to alter how their legislative ecosystem functions by amending, eliminating, or imposing new procedures and structures. These formative episodes—and the lessons we can learn from them—animate this chapter. Revisiting battles to reform congressional procedures and the committee system in the 1940s, 1970s, and 1990s, this chapter argues that Congress’s inherited rules and routines are difficult to displace. To disrupt the status quo, lawmakers must find ways to mollify reform’s certain losers, clarify the benefits of their desired procedural changes, and lower the barriers to members’ collective and coordinated action. Even when they succeed, however, the changes they secure will not be equally durable and many will have unintended consequences. Reforms to legislative procedure and organization last longer when they satisfy multiple crosscutting interests or when they successfully dismantle conflicting features of existing institutional arrangements. Against this backdrop, the chapter concludes with the observation that formal rule changes are not the only way for lawmakers to improve the function and capacity of congressional institutions. Rather than “clean house,” legislators can build new ones.

Keywords:   Congress, congressional capacity, legislative procedure, congressional committees, legislative organization, legislative rules, political reform

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