Tim Roemer and Zach Wamp: Here’s how the new Congress can promote good governance and boost public confidence

From the commentary: By passing bipartisan laws and enforcing strong ethics, our elected leaders can once again demonstrate that they are working for the people and promoting the common good.

U.S. Capitol
The American flag flies in front of the U.S. Capitol dome on September 10, 2021 in Washington, DC.
(Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

A string of historic bipartisan victories during the last Congress — including an update of the Electoral Count Act and transformational investments in infrastructure, semiconductor manufacturing, veterans protections and new energy transitions — demonstrate that Congress really can work in a bipartisan and productive manner for the American people. With a new Republican majority in the House of Representatives, insider experts predict Congress will grind to a halt. We hope the bipartisan successes of the last two years can instead be a road map for additional cooperation and improvement.

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The flip in control from Democrats to Republicans in the House not only marks the beginning of a new chapter that will heavily influence the remainder of President Joe Biden’s four-year term; it also presents the new Republican majority in the House with key opportunities to strengthen and reform Congress itself.

We don’t rule out more big bipartisan ideas, such as modest immigration reform, fresh investment in our cybersecurity and election protection, and greater unity on policies with China. But we recommend essential and timely action that our representatives should take during the next several weeks that will further modernize the legislative branch, increase the public’s faith that members of Congress are held to the highest ethical standards and bring greater transparency to the lawmaking process. These are all goals that many Republicans and Democrats articulated in various promises on the campaign trail.

First, we strongly urge the House to create a permanent subcommittee within the House Committee on House Administration to continue the important work of the bipartisan House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress to make our legislative branch a more effective, efficient and transparent institution.


Article I of our Constitution calls for a strong, functioning and representative legislative branch, and over the last four years, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress — under the leadership of Chairman Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., and Vice Chairman William Timmons, R-S.C., and previously Tom Graves, R-Ga. — has advanced a total of 202 bipartisan recommendations. Of those, around 130 have been fully or partially implemented.

The result is an improved Congress that’s working better for constituents seeking help in district offices and citizens searching for more information about pending legislation. That’s a huge bipartisan success story.

More specifically, these accomplishments include a new system that allows the public to easily track how amendments change legislation and the impact of proposed legislation to current law, the establishment of bipartisan committee staff briefings and agenda-setting retreats to encourage better policymaking and collaboration among members, improved new member orientation, and more opportunities for constituents to better communicate with their elected representatives.

Second, Congress must reinforce and not hinder the Office of Congressional Ethics, or OCE. This independent and nonpartisan ethics watchdog was created in 2008 to restore public confidence in the House by holding members of Congress accountable for ethics violations. Yet the new rules package passed by the House on Jan. 9 seriously undercuts OCE’s authority and undermines its ability to fulfill its mandate.

The changes will result in a number of key vacancies and require the OCE to hire its staff for the 118th Congress within 30 days of the adoption of the rule, a random requirement and highly restrictive to attract new staff — and the clock is already ticking. This unprecedented move will likely result in a hamstrung ethics office that is potentially understaffed and unable to conduct investigations in order to safeguard against corruption in the House.

These efforts to hobble the OCE will only reduce trust and transparency in the House. Both parties have campaigned on these similar themes of “clean the swamp” and “reform Congress and hold members accountable.” Let’s see their campaign promises enacted into bipartisan law.

Our country has been watching and wondering what will happen to newly elected Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., who has apparently lied about his work experience, education background and even his mother’s presence on 9/11, by fabricating virtually every aspect of his resume. His high-profile case, possibly including campaign finance violations, will certainly be reviewed by OCE. This Santos affair is an embarrassing episode and erodes confidence in our democratic process, and it’s why we need a strong OCE to rid corruption from the halls of Congress.

Third, the House should adopt a more open system for representatives to offer amendments to legislation that has advanced to the full floor. We both advocated for this change while serving in Congress, with mixed results.


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Republican and Democratic leadership has resisted calls for more open rules in recent years to avoid politically difficult votes, but this is one important way that members are able to effectively represent their constituents and have a voice in our legislative process.

Such a move will allow all members — particularly newly elected representatives who may not wield as much power as their longer-serving committee chairs or leadership colleagues — to fully participate in “the people’s House” and encourage a healthy and lively debate on a host of issues. Power to write legislation has gravitated to the speaker’s office when the substantive work of Congress is its expertise on committees and its talented membership.

Benjamin Franklin said, “Laws without morals are in vain.” By passing bipartisan laws and enforcing strong ethics, our elected leaders can once again demonstrate that they are working for the people and promoting the common good.

Zach Wamp is a former Republican congressman from Tennessee. Tim Roemer is a former Democratic congressman from Indiana and the U.S. ambassador to India. They are co-chairs of Issue One’s ReFormers Caucus. This commentary is the columnist's opinion. Send feedback to:

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