Imagine a high school with poor graduation rates, weak test scores, and a chaotic atmosphere as a result of having pushovers as teachers and administrators.
You’d likely find poor ratings for the institution, even as individual faculty members remained popular with most students. Conversely, a school with strict, demanding instructors might win awards and see impressive college admissions for its graduates, even as students bemoan the taskmasters in the classrooms.
Now, what would happen if every teacher had to stand for reelection among their students after each school year? Grade inflation, little coursework, and light discipline would probably become the norms. The institution would decline in correlation to the fervor with which its members sought to keep their individual positions.
And that’s the story of how America ended up with a Congress that hasn’t had a job approval rating above 40 percent in almost 20 years, but in the most recent elections saw 95 percent of House members and 100 percent of senators who sought reelection returned to office.
If the members of a Congress that barely 1 in 5 adults think are performing adequately are all but impervious to removal by voters, what incentives do its members have for sincere reforms that would improve the institution as a whole? Indeed, the opposite is true.
Congress is unpopular because it doesn’t do its job. But individuals in Congress remain popular and in power for exactly the same reason. And when Congress, the central organ of our system of government, fails, so does the system itself.
Which is why we are very fortunate to have a new book from my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, Philip Wallach, Why Congress. Wallach is among the best historians and analysts of American politics working today. Even before earning his master’s and doctorate in the subject, Wallach has been working out how the system envisioned by his fellow Princetonian, James Madison, is supposed to work, how it became so broken, and, helpfully, how to repair it.
“Today, Congress flattens the country’s diversity rather than representing it,” Wallach writes. “A functional representative assembly’s legislative work ought to reflect the diversity of the concerns of its members, both in the process of generating laws and in the enactments themselves. Congress as currently structured, however, tends to reduce the nation’s complexity into two polarized, warring camps.”
Ain’t that a fact.
Wallach traces the journey from the heady days of reform in a post-Watergate Washington when powerful lawmakers opened up the process and decentralized lawmaking while creating new pathways for reaching bipartisan consensus on what were then considered the ordinary, basic tasks of the legislative branch: taxation and spending.
As we slog deeper into the third decade of the 21st century, those pathways—which we know by jargony names like “budget reconciliation”—are almost all that remain open for the work of Congress. Rather than efficient ways of dealing with “must-pass” legislation, these budget mechanisms are now among the only things that can still happen. Rather than freeing lawmakers to focus on the business of the nation, the budget process lurches from crisis to crisis while real debate and policy work give way to posturing around “messaging bills” and pointless Punch-and-Judy committee hearings.
As it turned out, lawmakers did not want to do the hard work of legislating, which requires compromise and controversy. They chose leaders who would shield them from tricky amendments and prevent votes on bills that were popular with the general electorate but could hack off key constituencies in primaries. Rather than empowering the Article I branch against the usurpations of an imperial executive branch and justices legislating from the bench, members of Congress sought job security by devolving their own powers.
We see the result in the angry, populistic spirit that pervades our politics. The House of Representatives is supposed to absorb and channel the passions of the people, providing the energy to drive government action, while other parts of the government react to what the House does. But what if the House is a self-licking ice cream cone that exists for the perpetual incumbency of its own members?
When we think of the dysfunction of Congress these days, we tend to first think of ideological friction between extremists in minority groups—particularly the House Freedom Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus—and the more moderate members who tend to populate the leaderships of both parties.
For instance, Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries both wanted to cut a deal on federal borrowing. But progressives wanted President Biden to invoke the 14th Amendment and ignore the debt ceiling entirely while some MAGA members wanted to hit the limit.
Neither ignoring or breaching the limit was tenable to the bipartisan majority, and both proposals carried the possibilities for real catastrophes for all Americans. These radical proposals had to be defeated, the normies thought. But by whom? Voting to increase the borrowing limit can be deadly in a Republican primary, while supporting any cuts to domestic spending can get a Democrat branded a sellout in their own intramurals.
So the rank and file outsourced the work to their leaders, “the four corners,” the House speaker, House minority leader, and Senate party leaders. The leaders and their staffs hammered out a deal with the White House and dropped the package—“must-pass”—in the laps of their members who would “hold their nose” and vote for it. They can tell the folks back home that they hate the way Congress works, but the other side is so awful this bad deal was the only way to avoid disaster. And if you wouldn’t mind clicking here to chip in another $25 to keep us in the fight…
The policy positions of the Freedom Caucus or the Progressive Caucus are so radical, the thinking goes, that the system has to be clamped down to prevent dangerous legislation. The result is that ideological radicalism is met with procedural radicalism. Rather than letting measures work their way through regular order and the many painful votes that might entail, lawmakers cede control to their leaders to cram and jam through bills constructed in secrecy and haste. Then it’s back to “messaging,” Congress-speak for covering their hindquarters.
Wallach doesn’t make the case here for term limits, but I certainly left his work more convinced than ever that members of Congress need a shot clock.
What he does argue very convincingly for, however, is opening Congress back up; and its members throwing off the cramped constraints devised by a series of legislative leaders in the past two decades that do far more to protect incumbents than to do the work of the republic.
Wallach concludes with a plea to the members of Congress themselves, asking them to break out of the gilded cages their leaders have built for them, and start daring to legislate.
“If you imagine yourself as a loyal soldier for your party, that isn’t enough. If you think breaking with your party leaders on some votes makes you a maverick, that isn’t enough,” he writes. “You owe your constituents more than your hard work, more than your determination to show up and vote the right way. You have an obligation to engage in politics.”