Congress

The League’s History

Congress has been a part of the League agenda for many years. In 1944, the League adopted as a Program focus: “Strengthening governmental procedures to improve the legislative process and relationship between Congress and the Executive.” In 1946, the LWVUS worked successfully for passage of the Legislative Reorganization Act. In 1954, the League unsuccessfully called on Congress to coordinate and simplify its budgetary procedures.

In 1970, the League undertook a comprehensive study of Congress, leading to a 1972 position on specific changes to make Congress more responsive to citizen needs. League members urged Congress to open the doors to its committee and hearing rooms, free up access to leadership positions and coordinate its budgetary processes.

League support of procedural changes and the 1974 Budget Reform and Impoundment Control Act led to many improvements:

  • new committee procedures that modified the seniority system and made committee membership more representative of diverse interests;
  • rule changes for more adequate staffing;
  • electronic voting; 
  • modification of the Senate cloture rule;
  • moves to open all committee meetings and proceedings to the public, except when matters of national security are involved;
  • reorganization of the budget process, so that Congress can establish priorities and evaluate the budget package as a whole.

The League has continued to assess proposals for additional procedural changes in Congress. In 1986, the League urged the Senate to provide for radio broadcast and trial closed-circuit television coverage. In 1989, the LWVUS successfully urged the House to enact an ethics reform package that included limits on honoraria and outside income. In 1998, the League joined 13 national groups in urging the Senate Majority Leader to eliminate the use of “secret holds” in the Senate. The League and 52 other groups endorsed draft legislation to put Congressional Research Service reports and products on the Internet.

In 1991, the League announced its opposition to term limits for members of the U.S. Congress on the grounds that such limits would adversely affect the accountability, representativeness and effective performance of Congress, and by decreasing the power of Congress, would upset the balance of power between Congress and an already powerful presidency. The 1992 LWVUS Convention reaffirmed opposition to term limits and authorized state and local Leagues to use national positions to take action on term limits for state and local offices.

In 1993-1994, the LWVs of Washington and Arkansas participated in suits challenging state term limits laws based on the U.S. Constitution. In 1995, after hearing the Arkansas case, the Supreme Court agreed that term limits imposed by states on the U.S. House and Senate are unconstitutional. Proposals to amend the Constitution to allow or set federal term limits failed to receive the necessary two-thirds majority in both houses. The League vigorously opposed the proposed amendment through testimony, lobbying and grassroots action. In 1997, the League again successfully lobbied House members on this issue.

In 1999, the LWVUS and the LWV of Missouri filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cook v. Gralike, challenging a Missouri law requiring the phrase “disregarded voters’ instruction on term limits” to appear on the ballot next to any candidate’s name who had not taken certain actions related to term limits. The law was struck down by the Appeals Court, both because it was a backdoor attempt to impose term limits and because it burdened the election process. The state LWV and the LWVUS subsequently filed amicus briefs with the Supreme Court while the case was considered on appeal.

In 2007 and 2008, the League responded directly to congressional scandals that demonstrated a failure in the mechanisms that regulated ethics and lobbying. The League pushed Congress to enact lobbying reform measures to set fundraising limits on lobbyists and lobbying firms; change the gift, travel and employment relationships among Members of Congress, lobbyists and lobbying firms; and institute new and effective enforcement mechanisms.

In 2008, the House passed new ethics procedures, including new ethics rules, disclosure requirements for campaign contributions “bundled” by lobbyists, and a new ethics enforcement process. The League also supported strengthening the investigative powers of the new Office of Congressional Ethics by providing access to subpoena power so investigators would be able to compel cooperation from outside entities and individuals, congressional staff and Members.

In 2010 and again in 1012, the League and coalition partners sent a letter to the Speaker urging him to preserve and strengthen House ethics rules and standards of conduct.

The League’s Position

Statement of Position on Congress, as Announced by National Board, April 1972 and Revised March 1982:

The League of Women Voters of the United States believes that structures and practices of the U.S. Congress must be characterized by openness, accountability, representativeness, decision making capability and effective performance. Responsive legislative processes must meet these criteria:

ACCOUNTABILITY. A Congress responsive to citizens and able to hold its own leaders, committees and members responsible for their actions and decisions.

REPRESENTATIVENESS. A Congress whose leaders, committees and members represent the nation as a whole, as well as their own districts and states.

DECISION  MAKING CAPABILITY. A Congress with the knowledge, resources and power to make decisions that meet national needs and reconcile conflicting interests and priorities.

EFFECTIVE PERFORMANCE. A Congress able to function in an efficient manner with a minimum of conflict, wasted time and duplication of effort.

OPEN GOVERNMENT. A Congress whose proceedings in committee as well as on the floor are open to the fullest extent possible.