Rebuild Congress Initiative

(a Harvard Negotiation Project initiative)
Director: Bruce Patton

The Rebuild Congress Initiative (RCI) is a non-partisan initiative seeking to apply insights from theory and practice in negotiation, international mediation, and organizational transformation to improve the functioning of the United States Congress. The mission of RCI is to help foster a strong and functional Congress that fulfills its Article One responsibilities as a co-equal branch of government.

Theory of Change:

RCI approaches the functioning of Congress as a systems problem, which means that it is a product of multiple interdependent forces. Typical participants in a problematic system don’t like the situation in which they find themselves, but don’t see easy ways to change it and often don’t appreciate how their reasonable actions under the constraints they experience serve to perpetuate and reinforce the system they dislike. This fits well with what RCI has heard from many members and observers of Congress.

In seeking systemic change, RCI believes that any change effort must be broadly cross-partisan, inclusive, and collaborative to be implementable and durable, because:

  • Those within the system, in this case Members of Congress (but also leadership, staff, interest groups, and so on), will have critical insights that those who analyze the system from the outside (even former members) likely will not have;
  • Without the legitimacy of broadly representative support, it will be too easy for those wanting to preserve the status quo to oppose change as partisan; and
  • Humans defend their autonomy and resist change being imposed on them.

With this in mind, RCI does not come to its work seeking to “sell” predetermined solutions, but rather to help parties articulate interests and explore and craft possible value-optimizing options through high-quality dialogue and reflection. This may involve helping parties weigh short-term interests in achieving specific policy or electoral outcomes against longer-term institutional interests and their own ability to achieve future ends. It may also involve facilitating mutual understanding and brainstorming among parties with different substantive or value priorities to promote more creative and integrative thinking rather than either-or debates.

At the same time, RCI believes that for people to be willing to change, they need to have a clear idea of what it would be like to exist in the new reality and how that would meet their interests better than their current reality. RCI believes that the most efficient way to achieve such understanding and comfort is to help people “try on,” criticize, and improve a range of concrete, illustrative options without any pressure at all to commit.

RCI believes that the question of what future state makes sense is distinct and separate from the question of how fairly and sensibly to implement a process of change to that future state (given the inevitably unequal burdens and benefits of change), and that change is more likely to happen if both questions are addressed to the satisfaction of most parties before implementation begins.

Finally, RCI believes that no system can be fully understood until you try to change it and discover the forces that emerge to resist that change. Hence RCI seeks to maintain and promote a stance of ongoing openness to learning about what might be needed to achieve desired ends and a willingness to adjust in light of experience.

Our Role:

RCI seeks to promote a greater focus on the institutional perspective, including the costs of dysfunction and measures to address it. We seek to facilitate stakeholders across the political spectrum, both inside and outside of Congress, to get actively engaged in discussion and debate about how best to create a Congress that can fulfill its Article One responsibilities. We work with these stakeholders to foster their own high-quality dialogue and deliberation, and over time help them organize towards implementing durable solutions. If possible, we hope, over time, to help the entire “ecosystem” of interested parties reach a “tipping point” where enough parties from enough places have converged enough in their thinking about what change is needed and why that useful action moves forward almost of its own accord.

In 2018, RCI played a pivotal role, working closely with members of the House from across the political spectrum, in helping develop proposals that resulted in January 2019 in key changes to House rules to empower members and the creation, by a vote of 418-12, of the bipartisan Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. RCI continues to support the work of the Select Committee, which has issued so far more than 45 unanimous recommendations and is the first Select Committee in decades to have its proposals adopted.

Beyond the Select Committee, RCI continues to promote bipartisan dialogue among members and staff of the House and Senate about what a strong and functional institution looks like, and how to make progress towards that definition of success.

Recently RCI has focused on the larger “ecosystem” of organizations that lobby Congress. Our objective is to create the “go-to” coalitions on the right and left for debate and discussion on how to foster a strong and functional Congress that fulfills its Article One responsibilities. By providing a consistent forum for deliberation, we believe over time unlikely bedfellows will emerge on issues and that participation in these groups should help put the issue of congressional function “in play” more broadly.

RCI’s Guiding Principles:

While RCI seeks to develop its own understanding of different institutional interests, perspectives, existing proposals, and possible options, it does so to better enable informed and rigorous discussion among parties. RCI does not advocate for particular approaches, directly or indirectly, unless it is with and on behalf of an inclusive and representative group from whom those ideas have emerged as a working consensus.

RCI may raise potentially relevant ideas for critique or comment as part of fostering high-quality deliberation (“Some have argued that X would be a good way to deal with that. What would be wrong with something like X from your point of view? . . . The argument is that that concern could be handled by doing Y. What’s your thinking on that?”), but should make clear in the moment and by its actions over time that this is for purposes of testing and inquiry, not indirect advocacy.

No mediator or facilitator is or can be entirely neutral. RCI’s aspiration is to be sufficiently impartial and open-minded to continue to be seen as useful by those with whom we engage. To the extent RCI’s inquiry is rooted in a substantive perspective, it would be that of the Framers of the Constitution. The Framers sought to harness the competing parochial ambitions of elected officials to preserve liberty and minority rights, creating a system of “checks and balances” among three independent branches of government. Their general vision of a representative, independent, even pre-eminent Congress driving national policy is what RCI generally seeks to promote to the extent parties can converge on the desirability and feasibility of such a goal.

Of course, the Framers themselves had differences of philosophy, some of which remain relevant today, and likely failed to anticipate some of the dynamics that have arisen in their framework. But there is broad consensus among many diverse parties that their thinking captured great wisdom only better understood and validated in the years since. To date, RCI has focused particularly on three key principles of the Framers’ vision:

  1. The value of the legislature and the reason to give it the power to set the rules and direction of the country is rooted in what is now known as the value of “collective intelligence” — the ability of a diverse group to find deeper understanding and better solutions to complex problems than any one person by leveraging and combining their differing perspectives and insights, as well as its representational legitimacy.
  2. This capability is enabled and its value optimized by the ability of members of Congress to maintain a lively dialogue and connection with their constituents to understand each other’s concerns, help all better appreciate the emerging challenges facing the nation and the potential choices to be made about how best to meet those challenges, and ensure the perceived legitimacy of government action by giving the governed confidence that their representatives are in fact seeking to serve their constituents’ interests.
  3. To reap these benefits, members of Congress need to be able and willing to exercise the agency for which they have been elected.

RCI’s working hypothesis to date is that Congress would be doing a better job of enacting these principles if, at some point in the future:

  • Power between the three branches of our government were more balanced than it is today;
  • Power within the Congress was more distributed among members than it is today; and
  • There were more regular and timely votes on important issues occurring, each after higher quality and more broadly inclusive debate and deliberation.

Whether and how to achieve that is the subject of the dialogue(s) we seek to foster.

Consistent with the above, RCI seeks to be broadly transparent about our objectives and proposed means, honest and consistent in our communication, and steadfast in our determination to help Congress and the American people find a way for Congress to better fulfill its full Article I responsibilities.

Our strategy is to focus primarily on those high-impact activities for which we are best suited, and to collaborate with and, as possible, leverage the efforts and resources of the many other groups seeking to promote a more functional Congress.

Definition of the Problem:

Since 1958, when 72% of the American electorate viewed Congressional performance positively, approval of the institution has plummeted. Today, only 15% of Americans approve of Congress, likely the lowest figure in history. Millennials, soon to be the largest voting bloc, are particularly dissatisfied with – and distrustful of – Congress.

Dissatisfied voters often believe:

  • Debate and deliberation has been stymied; the country is increasingly governed by omnibus legislation and executive order; votes on important legislation are not timely or sometimes, for example in the case of trade policy, have been outsourced to the executive altogether; partisanship often seems to win over the pursuit of good policy;
  • Core Congressional processes like budget authorization and appropriations are no longer operating as intended, there is no correlation between revenue and spending, and the national deficit is growing at an alarming pace;
  • The country has been at war for over 15 years and not voted on an AUMF since 2001;
  • Even as the size and scope of the executive branch has grown, Congressional oversight has atrophied, threatening the system of checks and balances meant to protect our republic from unconstrained executive power;
  • Legislation is increasingly drafted by leadership and lobbyists (or the White House) without transparency, and voted on without hearings or committee consideration, or even adequate time for Members to read the bill; and
  • The institution is widely seen as more responsive to donors than it is to the people.

It appears that even a majority of Members of Congress are not comfortable with how Congress is currently operating, but most are uncertain how to change the system and are not well-equipped to do so on their own. Members are suspicious of specific change proposals, and those with historical perspective have a healthy fear of potential unintended consequences from such measures. All wonder how to cope with leadership that is reluctant to change, and an increasingly powerful executive branch.

While there have been many historical periods when Congress functioned much more effectively, it is by no means clear how to recreate such dynamics, and today’s world offers many new challenges to doing so, including increasingly complex geopolitical and technological problems, online social media that encourages divisive behavior, and 24-hour-a-day, sensation-seeking cable news.