Commentary: It’s Time to Re-Open the People’s House
No matter one’s political ideology, we can be confident that the legislation Congress considers and passes for fiscal year 2022 policy and spending will be less than it could have been. Why? Because the inputs were substandard and we mostly just went through the motions to get to an outcome.
A partial solution is within our grasp and not nearly as difficult as reforming the Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution (PPBE) process heralded in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.
The solution: Re-open the doors of the People’s House.
The federal legislative season for fiscal year 2023 has begun before resolving spending decisions for fiscal year 2022. We’ve been here before many times in the past decade. Balanced budget acts, fiscal cliffs, defense vs. non-defense debates, sequestration, continuing resolutions, omnibuses, minibuses and cromnibuses are just a few of the manifestations of legislative disfunction. We rebuild this house of cards annually, and we are not in a good place.
The movement to reform the PPBE process is informed at least in partial response to the excellent work of Bill Greenwalt and Dan Plat at the American Enterprise Institute outlining the need for systemic reform. This effort has begun with the naming of participants in the review. This is a start. But even easier support to the process is within reach.
Awaiting federal funding is unfortunate and expensive, as borne out by numerous studies of the budget process challenges. Program offices must make sporadic spending decisions, often deferring even the most logical buying, in service to a complex rationale that should protect taxpayer interests while not overcommitting funds not yet appropriated. Industry doesn’t serve shareholders well by making capital investments or pricing decisions with incomplete government buying forecasts, so it doesn’t. On top of this, and in many ways worse, we can be confident that Congress did not receive the best inputs.
Each year, Congress traditionally informs itself by taking meetings from industry and agencies in the form of hundreds of hearings and thousands of informational meetings. These inputs are an essential part of the legislative process. The breadth of issues before lawmakers each year is staggering. While much of the government can and does run effectively on autopilot, a significant portion of government activity and future planning requires foresight and deliberation. This kind of planning requires quality information and inputs from those with alternative positions and additional facts. When Congress faces choices about how government should proceed, there are usually multiple correct answers. It is the evaluation of the facts that helps the decision makers get to the best good-government outcomes.
Today, Congress’ failure to fully open its doors inhibits the sharing of essential facts.
The COVID-19 pandemic initially caused Congress to close its doors to the general public for public safety. It was consistent with industry, the federal government, and many state governments. Limiting access was seen as a viable method of reducing unnecessary contact and thereby reducing the spread of the virus. The events of Jan. 6, 2021, added another level of concern to the security protocols of the Capitol complex. The Capitol was flatfooted for the events of Jan. 6. Again, limiting access to visitors appears to be an easy fix to a security challenge.
However, there is a problem that affects you and affects government decision-making. The lack of access to in-person meetings seriously inhibits the flow of critical information required for Congress and congressional staff to make the best-informed decisions.
Yes, there are virtual meetings taking place in many cases. Virtual meetings work to a point, but they are not the same. They are generally cold, impersonal, abrupt and technical. Virtual and electronic exchange of information can work, but critical aspects of credibility, trust and subtle non-verbal cues don’t convey accurately.
Why do the doors remain mostly closed? It depends on whom one asks, and unfortunately, the responses ooze political ideology. For reasons beyond this piece, COVID is now endemic and will be a factor in our lives. The rationale of avoiding gatherings falls flat, particularly in the face of fundraising business as usual at receptions and dinners right next door to Congress.
The offices of Congress were not restricted for this long, even after 9/11, so the security argument also seems specious.
We are well past the need for the Capitol’s extreme visitor access protocols. One solution might be installing a badging system for those with legitimate needs for ongoing dialogue with lawmakers. The press has such access. Why do the people doing the people’s business not have equal access to the People’s House? There can be a balance of security and access in the halls of Congress. It’s time.
Gene Moran is president of Capitol Integration and author of the book Pitching the Big Top: How to Master the 3-Ring Circus of Federal Sales.