How Congress Can Build Unity

In her new book, Dr. Maya Kornberg examines the crucial role of congressional committee hearings, and how despite appearances to the contrary, they sometimes get things done.

A Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, September 3, 2013 (NARA and DVIDS Public Domain Archive)

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A contentious election of a Speaker of the House and the recent ejection of some members from congressional committees could have given the impression that Congress is hopelessly mired in partisan politics.

Which is not entirely true.

Because away from the cameras and microphones, these congressional committees are often productive gatherings where House and Senate members hammer out bipartisan agreements. As Dr. Maya Kornberg writes in her new book, Inside Congressional Committees (2023, Columbia University Press), these hearings can create an atmosphere where legislators find common ground.

Inside Congressional Committees by Maya L. Kornberg (2023, Columbia University Press)

Kornberg, of NYU Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, readily agrees that Congress is beset with problems. Research has  shown that Congress is crippled by the filibuster and partisan gridlock. It passes fewer laws, spends less time legislating and deliberating, and is increasingly hemmed in by party lines. All of which could explain why Americans give it an approval rating of 23 percent.

But there is work being done in many of the 20 standing House committees and 16 standing Senate committees, as well as 12 special, select, and joint committees. In a recent conversation the Post had with Kornberg, she referred to them as “the only institutionalized venues for bipartisan interaction in Congress.”

Committee members conduct hearings, gather expert testimony, and — more often than the media might lead you to believe — develop bipartisan solutions.

As members question witnesses, says Kornberg, they indicate where they stand on issues. Sometimes congressional members in the other party gain an understanding of their colleagues’ unspoken concerns, which might lead them to realize “that’s something I can work on.”

During hearings by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for instance, one committee member noticed a senator from the other party ask a lot of questions about an issue he felt strongly about: cybersecurity. Out of their shared concern for the subject, the two were able to form a select committee on cyber concerns.

Political divisions weren’t this bitter in previous generations, Kornberg points out, because legislators socialized more with members of the other party.

One key to improving working relations, she adds, is getting out of Washington. She cites the 2018 Farm Bill Implementation Listening Sessions, in which legislators travelled across country, hearing farmers’ concerns. It allowed members to engage outside of the capitol’s hyperpartisan setting and to find commonality — an opportunity, says Kornberg, to escape “the echo chamber of divisive politics.”

Other than the good of the country, there’s another reason for members of Congress to find common ground. With both chambers closely divided, it will be hard for the House or Senate to affect policy. “Over the past several decades,” says Kornberg, “Congress has been losing power.” When the houses can’t come together to address ambitious or controversial issues, the executive branch has taken the initiative. For example, Congress has the constitutional power to declare war, but it hasn’t since the Korean conflict over 70 years ago.

Since 1979, more than a thousand staff members have been let go by Congress, according to Kornberg, which has made it increasingly dependent on the White House for decision-making information. Legislators must also turn to lobbyists for background and vital information in committee hearings. Both practices make Congress increasingly dependent on outside sources for its operation

In her book, Kornberg offers several ways Congress could regain its power as a branch of the government. These include bipartisan agenda-setting meetings, hiring independent, professional policy staff, and promoting more minorities to chairmanship positions. These and other recommendation, she says, could restore Congress to “its position as representative of the American people.”

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  1. Our government are absolute vicious fiend lying monsters, Mr. Nilsson. They and the military go into other countries killing their citizens to steal whatever resources we feel ‘entitled’ to take. Justified as ‘helping’ these nations to the media when it couldn’t be further from the truth. I think George Santos (if that’s even his real name) represents our government to a ‘t’. A criminal liar freak that’s SO bad, he actually makes the rest of them look better by comparison.

    I took all of my savings out of my bank today and have it in a safe undisclosed location, and so are my friends. I have every right and reason to fear the government will steal it, and I’ll have no recourse in ever getting it back. By doing my own preemptive strike against them first, it won’t happen. Congress, all of the government is something I’d scrape off the bottom of my shoe, and then have it disinfected.

  2. With all due respect to Dr. Kornberg, her ideas, suggestions and advice could only work with a system that isn’t entirely and completely broken from within. BOTH political parties only care about themselves personally and the vast amounts they’re being paid to be the whores of the military industrial complex, Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industrial complex and everyone else paying them off to do their bidding.

    We lost our democracy a long, long time ago. The unelected members of the World Economic Forum call all the shots now anyway. Democracy is a grand illusion patronized now because we’re supposed to have it. Americans still give it an approval rating of 23 percent? Unbelievable. it should be more like 2.3 percent, if that. The government (truthfully) hates Americans, doing anything and everything intentionally working against us.

    NEVER-ENDING billions for Ukraine, America’s latest never-ending war, while talking about no social security money for millions of deserving Americans, that is THEIR money. But never ending wars, no problem. Our country can rot for all they care, and it is. War mongering Presidents with a never-ending thirst for blood.

    The final sentence sums it up very well with the continued reference to “the American people.” Those 3 words are code for the government/Congress ‘separating’ themselves from the American people because they’re not Americans themselves, not really. Oh, they are on paper, and yes, are U.S. citizens, but that’s it. They’re only here to get filthy rich, having homes around the world, private jets, yachts, golden parachutes and way more. And these pieces of s— are supposed to be working for us??! How DOES that work? I’d love an explanation!

  3. There will never be “unity” as long as there is an assault on our Constitution by members of Congress, the Executive Branch, and the Left-leaning, Liberal-loving, woke media. The Federal Government should keep their noses out of what each state determines to be law for that state. We are not a Socialist nation, yet. But if it is left up to the Demoncrats it will be there sooner than later.


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