Part 1: Congress Today
Writing in 2006 in their aptly titled "The Broken Branch" Congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein described the contemporary Congress as “a supine, reactive body more eager to submit to presidential directives than to assert its own prerogatives." According to the authors, many characteristics that define the contemporary Congress took shape during the period of the late 1960s. Among the changes was a shift away from the “textbook” Congress of the New Deal era characterized by a decentralized power structure, powerful committee chairs, and weak parties.
Though I agree with much of what Mann and Ornstein presented in The Broken Branch, I believe the seeds of Congressional dysfunction where planted a bit earlier. A combination of internal and external pressures dating to the late 1950s set in motion the creation of the contemporary Congress. A series of elections spanning nearly two decades (from the the 1950s-1970s) changed the ideological make-up of the Democratic party. A combination of court decisions and federal legislation (in the 1960s) changed the nature of congressional constituencies. A series of internal reforms enacted from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s empowered individual members of Congress. Concomitant with these changes was a dramatic rise in interest groups, a marked rise in two-party competition, and the frequent presence of divided partisan control of the legislative and executive branches. Collectively, these changes raised the stakes in the pitched battle over lawmaking. Highly professionalized members, intense partisan polarization, centralized control among party leaders, and an increased reliance on “unorthodox” procedures to secure passage of legislation mark the Congress that emerged.Over the course of the next few weeks, I will discuss in detail what I merely summarize now.
Two deeply polarized political parties engaged in a close-fought and bitter struggle for electoral victory and legislative control mark the contemporary Congress. Though the even level of electoral competition has been especially evident in recent years, it first emerged in the late 1970s when Republicans gained a congressional foothold in the south. Increased electoral competition coupled with the advent of divided government gave rise to reforms in the Congress that first empowered individual members to become highly professional representatives but then gave way into further changes that effectively centralized control around the organizing principle of party. In the House and Senate, members realized that the best way to ensure success of the party agenda and to obstruct the minority party was through greater centralization of power in party leadership. This was more readily achieved in the House, but even in the Senate changes in the minority/majority approach to floor activity and amendments show that centralization around party – if not necessarily party leadership – has occurred.
In today’s Congress, lawmakers pursue initiatives important to their constituents, to key interest groups, and to their party in a professional environment of ideologically uniform parties with sharp agenda differences. Washington’s professional and partisan legislature often supports a president in the same party as a congressional majority and obstructs an opposition party president. As measured by the number of pages in the Federal Register, the contemporary Congress appears capable of legislating, though not when addressing issues of major concern. Why? The congressional parties diverge sharply on major issues, leading to attempts at legislative domination by partisan majorities and obstruction by partisan minorities.
There are now so many voices at play in policy-making, described fully in chapters two and six, that it has become more difficult to legislate and easier to obstruct. Multiple congressional committees and subcommittees enjoy some degree of jurisdiction over major issues. These committees in turn have established mutually beneficial relationships with interest groups. Multiple committee referrals are quite common as a result. Party leadership uses restrictive rules and post-committee adjustment to ensure buy-in by the multitude of interested voices. Such buy-in requires difficult and finely crafted compromises. In a closely divided and polarized environment, every incentive exists for a minority party to derail or prevent such compromises. The result is often congressional inaction and policy stasis.
The great challenges of the present era will often require congressional action. By acting, Congress frequently defines the scope and powers of the executive bureaucracy – Washington’s “permanent government” -- and the scope and jurisdiction of the judiciary. Since the 1960s and 1970s, Congress has become increasingly divided by party and unable to perform its duties with decorum and dispatch. Dysfunction within Congress reverberates throughout the entirety of the American political system.
Next - Part 2: The Rise of Progresive Democrats - 1958-1974