Opinion | An Open Congress Would Make Better Laws

The Capitol dome at sunrise in Washington, March 4.


Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press


Ronald Reagan

asked voters: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” He wanted them to focus on what matters most—the government’s effect on everyday life. But in a democracy, we arrive at policy decisions through a process, and the road shapes the result. Today’s legislative process is a mess.

As a conservative Republican, I’m concerned about the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill. It contains elements I support, like additional funding for vaccinations and help for small businesses and families. It also includes hundreds of billions of dollars in spending that has nothing to do with the crisis. But this unvetted, massive and consequential bill is on the verge of passage without even the pretense of input from my side of the aisle. Set aside your personal views on the legislative merits—the process was abysmal.

This isn’t unique. At the end of 2019, when Republicans controlled the Senate and White House, lawmakers were asked to pass judgment on a $1.4 trillion, 2,313-page spending bill in less than three days with no opportunity to question the details, let alone offer amendments. The parties’ top leaders had negotiated the details behind closed doors, and rank-and-file members, Democrats and Republicans alike, were forced to approve the whole enchilada or be blamed for a government shutdown.

It’s not supposed to be this way. Historically, major bills worked their way through committees, with hearings, expert testimony, and opportunities for members to amend legislation. That’s how Reagan’s 1986 tax reform passed. Even

George W. Bush’s

2001 tax cuts—which passed through the same budget-reconciliation process Democrats are using to move the Covid bill—were born of extensive debate and ended up with votes from a dozen Democratic senators. But Congress has abandoned this approach.

In the absence of an open process, bad ideas are passed into law and good ones left by the wayside. I could cite any number of provisions in the present bill, like hundreds of billions to bail out union pensions and failed fiscal management of blue states. I’m sure Democrats could point to many past examples when the shoe was on the other foot.

Some will argue that the lousy process requires a change in the rules, but the rules today are much the same as they were when Reagan was president. Yet lawmakers then actually hunkered down to work through issues.

The fundamental issue is political will. Under the current process, rank-and-file members are denied input and forced to rubber-stamp whatever agreement is made by the four congressional leaders and the president. Are rank-and-file members in both parties and both chambers willing to demand regular order and take back our authority to advocate for our states and constituents?

Reagan wanted voters to judge the president by how they fared from one election to the next. Our political system should be judged on a longer timeline. Does anyone think America’s democracy is in better shape today than it was a generation ago?

Mr. Cassidy, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Louisiana.

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