What Members of Congress Think Is Wrong With Congress

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By Casey Burgat

For those who feel Congress is in need of some modicum of reform, we should read carefully the words of those who experience first-hand the problems found within the institution: Members themselves. The July 2016 issue of PS: Political Science and Politics (pay wall) affords readers such an opportunity.

Within the issue, three Democrat Representatives and one Republican Senator provide essays that speak to the problems they see within the institution, as well as their insights for their effects and potential fixes. The essays are:

In order to get a sense of the agreements and disagreements on the problems, causes, effects, and reform proposals written by the Members, the visual below aggregates the observations written in the essays. A checkmark indicates that that respective Member explicitly commented on the specific topic. Bolded, green items highlight the issues that all four Members agree on. Red checkmarks designate items where there is not a universal consensus. (See below.)

Several observations are noteworthy. Across chambers and across party lines, all four Members agree that two related fundamental problems of the current state of Congress are that Congress has grown weaker and that the president has filled the power vacuum. Second, the one cause all Members agree has led to a weakened Congress is polarization, both within the chamber and within the electorate. Third, all Members concur that this polarization has led to power has being centralized by party leaders within Congress and that the executive branch has taken advantage of legislative gridlock in Congress by taking a more active role in legislating. Finally, and notably, there was very little, if any, overlap in the Members’ prescriptions for their respective concerns. 

These are vast simplifications of the thoughtful pieces written by congressional veterans. Take the time to read their words in their entirety as well as the essay authored by Professors Michael Crespin and Anthony Madonna that delves into the various observations made by the Members in much greater detail and from a political science perspective.

(Congressional staff and legislators can get copies of these essays through the Congressional Research Service and Library of Congress.)

Table 1. Legislators' Assessments of Congress: Agreement and Disagreement