Almost every member of Congress thinks the institution is broken in some way, and House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) is no exception.
Bishop, a former state legislator who is seeking reelection this year for one final term in the House, wants to abolish the Senate filibuster, reform the appropriations process and force federal agencies to get approval from lawmakers before issuing new rules.
In an interview in his office, the longtime Utah congressman argued the current process leads to “disenfranchised” citizens and linked the rise of the Freedom Caucus to citizens frustrated that lawmakers aren’t enacting the policies they voted for. He said he sees the selection of a new speaker to replace retiring Paul Ryan as an opportunity to enact reforms and hopes the emerging race will offer an opportunity to force discussions of ways to reform Congress.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
You had a lengthy career in state government. What led you to take the plunge and run for Congress in 2002?
I actually wanted to be governor rather than congressman, but I also realized there were a lot of my friends who would’ve supported me for Congress who would’ve been torn because several of my friends were also toying with the idea of running for governor. So I did it and everything kind of fell into place.
I realized, on the broad spectrum of the problems, the biggest problem is really the idea of federalism or Congress just tries to do too damn much. And the basic underlying premise to that is what government does is a service. If we were creating a product, there is an economy of scale. The bigger you are, the better you are. But in delivering a service, there is no economy of scale. We try to do too many things where we don’t have the capacity to really limit and be effective, efficient, just and creative. Local governments can simply by the size of the issue. So that’s the first problem.
With that, right now, there are certain procedures that right now make the Republicans basically in a no-win situation where people are upset, saying “we voted for change” and we are not delivering change.
One of the first ones is still obviously that damn Senate filibuster. Look at what we’ve done in the last two years. Everything that’s been a positive accomplishment has been done by going around the filibuster rule. We’re proud of that. [Supreme Court Justice Neil] Gorsuch was the nuclear option. The CRAs don’t require filibuster. Tax reform came on reconciliation. But the omnibus, you had to go right through a filibuster and it allowed the minority always to abuse their power.
It doesn’t matter who is majority and who is minority. They will never do anything because of the procedure. Personally, I’d like to get rid of the entire filibuster. I don’t think it has any value whatsoever anymore.
Do you worry that lawmakers cede their power if bills are so top-down, leadership-driven?
It’s not just lawmakers — it’s citizens. The citizens vote for something new, and the filibuster over there and our behind-the-scenes process over here basically means they’re disenfranchised. What they thought they were doing when they voted, never equates into reality. Which could mean that a voter, if he’s in total frustration, says, ‘Alright, let’s vote for the craziest bomb-thrower to go back there.’ Which does not necessarily help the process, but I totally understand why their frustration is there, because there are procedures to deal with.
The biggest reason why you want to put power back in the legislative branch is for citizens. If they do not like what an agency did — a rule or regulation — and a comment period is nice, but we also know that is totally meaningless. What can you do? With a congressman, I need their votes. They have some kind of actual hold on me. Whether I want to or not, I have to listen because that’s my job. It’s not a bureaucrat’s job. Nor should we expect them to be able to do that. And to try to, and write rules and regulations so they have to hear from people, it’s counterintuitive. It’s not really what they were designed to do. So, the administrative state needs to be fixed. The ability of rules and regulations that bypass Congress has to be fixed. The way we appropriate and budget has to be fixed. The filibuster has to be fixed.
To that end, we are trying to bring some people together into a working group. The people who have expressed these same frustrations over the years, most of them have been legislators. That’s one advantage for having someone with experience coming back here. Most of the people I know around this place that want reform are those that came here with another [legislative] job background. They didn’t come to Washington and think, “Oh, well, this is the way it’s naturally done.’ They see what they’ve done in their states and find there is a better way, a better solution to doing this.
There’s obviously been this move toward outsiders — people who have never had elected political office. What role do you think that’s played in exacerbating some of these problems?
The biggest problem with just having someone come here for the first time is that you think this is the way it’s supposed to be done. Those who have experience on state and local governments know there is another way of doing the job. That’s why they become the biggest voices for reform back here.
[Being an outsider] doesn’t necessarily preclude it. Obviously, President [Donald] Trump has voiced the same frustrations I have voiced and he has called for reform of the filibuster rule. He’s called for reform of our appropriations process. I think what he sees is the inability of us to work through the procedural roadblocks we have put upon ourselves.
Some of them are logical. The reason there’s a Budget Committee in the first place was in 1974 they didn’t like Appropriations, so you came up with a way of putting some kind of restraint on them. But now we have a silly process so the Budget Committee assumes more and more time, I got a number. You could have done that in the first caucus meeting.
What’s the reason leadership seems unwilling to dive into addressing anything of this? Do you think leadership is also frustrated by the dysfunction?
Yes, but actually cutting through the regulatory red tape we impose on ourselves is not easy.
I once made a proposal to [former House Majority Leader] Eric Cantor on how to do a process similar to what we do in Utah that would actually have empowered leadership to make decisions and cut through the red tape and make them faster and quicker. And he was nervous about that. He said, “I can’t give myself that kind of power.” But, I’m sorry, in state government somebody has to make a decision. You elect leadership to make decisions. We elect leadership to make decisions and then don’t empower them with the tools to actually make decisions.
And is part of that the rise of the Freedom Caucus, which is pretty consistently opposed to whatever leadership’s doing? Are leaders constantly having to look over their shoulders?
This is going to be counterintuitive to the narrative that is out there: I think the Freedom Caucus is a response to the frustration of not being able to get things done and the reason that frustration is there is because of procedures. We have lousy procedures in the House that make things done in secret and they don’t know anything about it until all is said and done. And that is frustrating to them. And then you pass a bill over to the Senate and it sits there and nothing happens to it.
I really think the Freedom Caucus is a response to the inability of getting things done because we have made it so procedurally difficult to accomplish the task.
Some businesses may worry about see-sawing policy under such an approach. Under a Democratic administration, the government would implement a bunch of climate change policies, for example, and then a Republican administration would roll those all back. What do you make of that argument?
Kind of called democracy, isn’t it? And maybe then the business community would be more interested in how we are doing things in the long-range. The issue, though, for the business community as it is right now, is if something happens to get passed and they don’t like it, there’s nothing they can do about it. They are stuck with it.
There’s another element. We write really vague laws. We have problems with Waters of the United States. Clean Air, Clean Water Act. Who can be opposed to any of that? But we never define what those are. We, in law, said there has to be consultation with local governments. We never defined what consultation actually means. So, a state now has the same priority with agencies as any sub-special interest group would have. Because we never actually took the time to write what we actually meant.
Are there cultural components to how things are structured now — you guys are here three days a week and have schedules packed with other events not directly related to legislating — that contribute to these problems?
Yes and no. If I have any complaints about what we have done recently is we don’t have enough breaks. There’s sometimes three or four weeks in row we are here, which may look good in letters to the editor or saying he should stay there because that’s your job, but let’s face it, after that third or fourth week, people get kind of squirrely.
Going home is not a vacation. Going home is actually being rooted back in the people and finding out what they are actually saying to you. If I stay here for four weeks, I’m totally isolated.
Talk a bit more what that working group will look like, and do you expect it’ll be done before you finish up in Congress?
Now you’re getting ahead of me. I expect to be reelected, and I’ve got two more years to do it or die trying.