In a recent Washington Post editorial, Robert G. Kaiser (author of the new book Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t) offers three reasons for why the institution of Congress is broken. In this piece, I critique each of these reasons in turn and also offer my view as to why Congress is broken. Finally, in conclusion, I discuss the role that cultural explanations have in explaining dysfunction in Congress.
Reason 1- Politics Trumps Policy: More so than politics trumping policy, it seems that what Kaiser means is that partisan politics trumps policy. (After all, David Mayhew first described members of Congress as “single-minded seekers of reelection” almost forty years ago in his 1974 book Congress: The Electoral Connection. The idea that members of Congress care about reelection is well-established.) It is true that Congress has reached modern highs in polarization; helping one’s party “team” gain majority party status is one of four goals for members of Congress identified by Gary Cox and Mathew McCubbins that helps explain why members of Congress behave the way they do (the other goals are winning reelection, gaining power in the institution, and passing good public policy).
It is important to note that this critique does not offer an explanation for why politics has become increasingly partisan (as that would at least double the length of this already lengthy post!) nor do I assume that partisan politics is necessarily bad. (After all it was an era of relatively low partisanship that struggled mightily to pass civil rights legislation.) Instead, I dig right into the question of whether increased partisan politics explains dysfunction in Congress.
So, does increased partisan politics explain dysfunction in Congress? Yes and no. Increased partisan politics is to blame for “dysfunction” because our system as a whole and many of our governmental institutions individually are not designed to handle partisan politics. This line of reasoning is illustrated well by comparing the House and the Senate. The majoritarian House has generally done well at passing legislation in recent years. One might disagree with the outcome of this legislation, but the House has generally been able to get its work done (under both Democratic and Republican leadership). It is true that John Boehner has struggled to pass legislation more than other recent speakers due to dissent from the Tea Party Caucus, but the House has still generally been better able to pass legislation that the U.S. Senate.
The Senate, which relies upon rules based on consensus, has struggled mightily to pass legislation in recent years. Unique features of the Senate such as filibusters and unanimous consent agreements combine with deep-seeded ideological disagreements to result in an institution that has been unable to efficiently work through legislation. Furthermore, a system based on separation of powers with checks and balances has meant that gridlock is likely when different parties control different chambers of Congress or branches of the government.
In this sense, partisan politics trumping policy is related to dysfunction—but only in the context of our unique American institutions. Other systems- such as the British Parliament—are well equipped to deal with deeply ideological parties. Under a system of so-called “responsible party government,” parties run for office with distinctly different platforms and then enact them once they are elected to office. If votes dislike the outcome of those policies, they can throw out that party at the next election. In a sense, America now has the ideological parties that responsible party government demands, but (unlike Britain) lacks institutions that fit with ideological parties.
Furthermore (and most controversially), I posit that what sometimes appears to be a prioritization of politics over policy actual indirectly relates back to a broader concern for policy. Quite simply, there is a lot is at stake in having one’s party in control of government. Anyone who lives in a state where the party control of state government recently flipped (such as Wisconsin or North Carolina) certainly knows what I am talking about.
A unified Democratic government means more spending on education and other social services, more liberal social policy on issues like abortion and gay rights, quite possibly more restrictions on gun ownership, a more progressive tax system, and a number of other liberal policies. A unified Republican government means less spending on education and social services, more conservative social policy on issues like abortion and gay rights, fewer restrictions on gun ownership, tax cuts, and a number of other conservative policies.
As a result of the high stakes of partisan politics, parties have to constantly manage their party brand or image. This means disagreeing and fighting on issues that may not be directly ideological but that feed into the overall image of the party. By positioning itself well on both ideological and non-ideological issues to the greatest degree possible (while staying fairly true to its ideological dispositions), a party is in a stronger position to do well in the next election and then enact what that party views as good policy in the next session of the legislature (or more commonly block what the party views to be bad policy). (Note: This view differs from that presented by Frances Lee in her excellent book “Beyond Ideology.”)
Overall, there is something to Kaiser’s explanation of politics trumping policy; however, this explanation is far more complicated and nuanced than his explanation suggests.
Reason 2- Staffers Do Most of the Work: Congress is a huge institution with a myriad of responsibilities. As a result, a division of labor is necessary both in terms of members each serving on a few committees (or usually one in the House) and developing individual specialties, but also in terms of delegating a large amount of work to staff. It is not just Congress that does this; the Executive and Judicial Branches both rely on a large professional staff to carry out their responsibilities. Outside of government, big corporations like Google and Microsoft also rely on staff in order to be successful. CEOs and entrepreneurs at corporations like these simply do not have the time to be involved in the minutia of every decision that is made and thus are rationally ignorant of much of what goes on in their companies.
In the same vein, members of Congress are also rationally ignorant of much of the specifics of pieces of legislation. While it is popular to criticize members of Congress for not reading the bills that go before them, I imagine most voters would prefer their member to spend time dealing with casework or spending time meeting with constituents than reading every line of every bill. Rather than reading the bills, members of Congress are able to rely on cues—such as from specialists on relevant committees or party leaders— as a short cut so that they can vote the “right” way on a piece of legislation.
Before criticizing members of Congress for engaging in such behavior, voters may want to take a look in the mirror. After all, when is the last time most voters walked into the voting booth and knew the specific issue positions of every candidate on the ballot? (Again, rational ignorance!)
While it is true that members of Congress spend more and more time engaged in “call time” raising money, this really ties back to the increasing importance of majority party status in the institution. I will get into this reason more in my conclusion, but for the time being suffice it to say that having staffers do most of the work likely has little to do with the dysfunction we see in Congress.
Reason 3-Issues, even the big ones, are no longer really debated: As with the second reason (having staff do most of the work), the lack of debate in Congress likely has very little to do with dysfunction in the institution. At most, this reason is a symptom of the permanent campaign (which stems from the increased importance of partisan politics) rather than a reason unto itself.
This reason assumes that prolonged debate is necessarily beneficial—but history shows that this is not necessarily the case. In the years leading up to the Civil War, significant debate took place over slavery and similar topics. In the midst of one of these debates, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was almost caned to death on the Senate floor by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina.
If two groups disagree deeply about something, they are likely to continue to disagree whether they debate it for an hour or for a month. Having “serious philosophical debate” as Kaiser longs for is no guarantee for a well-functioning institution. If anything, it may only serve to exacerbate differences that already exist between parties. (Note: this is not to say that debate is bad, but merely that bringing back a culture of debate is not a panacea for ridding Congress of dysfunction.)
Conclusion: My objections to Kaiser’s reasoning should not be viewed as objections to the view that cultural explanations have something to do with the dysfunction of Congress. Other cultural explanations (for example, the lack of personal relationships between members of Congress) are more convincing than an increased reliance on staff or increased debate.
Overall, however, I generally view cultural explanations for the dysfunction of Congress to be proximate, but not ultimate causes for the dysfunction that exists in the chamber. In other words something else (such as increasing polarization) changed the culture of Congress which then caused dysfunction in the body.
My objections to his editorial notwithstanding, I look forward to reading Robert Kaiser’s new book and encourage others to do the same to get a detailed look inside the inner working of America’s legislative branch.