Is Congress Broken? Not Necessarily

By Richard M. Skinner

William F. Connelly, Jr., John J. Pitney, Jr., and Gary J. Schmitt, Is Congress Broken? The Virtues and Defects of Partisanship and Gridlock (Brookings Institution Press, 2017).

Woodrow Wilson would not like this book. Newt Gingrich would not like it either. Is Congress Broken? The Virtues and Defects of Partisanship and Gridlock contains much criticism of the model of “party government” promulgated by Wilson and implemented by Gingrich. Under this model, united parties offer contrasting agendas to the public, which then chooses one. The winning party then implements its policies, with little role for deliberation, in committees or otherwise. But as Kathryn Pearson (University of Minnesota) notes in her chapter, such parliamentary-style parties fit awkwardly with our constitutional system.

The Anti-Federalists would not like this book. Many libertarians and populists probably would not like it either. Most of the contributors to this volume defend the role of expertise and deliberation – of learning and reasoning – in the work of Congress. While many of the authors believe in limited government, none show hostility to career politicians. They also generally defend transactional politics – bargaining and compromising – as a necessary means of making government function. Brookings’ Jonathan Rauch’s “political realism” provides a dominant framework for this volume. Echoing Max Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation,” he declares that government is hard, often frustrating work. We need institutions and relationships – both formal and informal – that make politics function, even some of their workings may not look pretty in close-up. Stability is difficult, and should be prized. Transparency can undermine governance, even when well-intentioned.

James Madison would like this book. William F. Connelly, Jr. (Washington and Lee University) and John J. Pitney, Jr. (Claremont McKenna) provide another important framework in their argument for “Madisonian republicanism.“ They particularly defend the separation of powers against its critics, including those who automatically assume that gridlock is bad.  Congress is worth defending as an institution, not simply as a means of enacting partisan goals. Connelly and Pitney also agree with Madison in accepting self-interest, partisan difference, and political ambition as normal parts of government.  

This work has a rich sense of congressional history. Daniel Stid (William and Flora Hewlett Foundation) discusses the impact of the APSA Committees on Congress and on Political Parties, which both inspired activities of reformers for decades after their work was published in the wake of World War II. Donald Wolfensberger (Wilson Center) traces the evolution of House rules, from the Founding to the current era. Kathryn Pearson discusses the history of the committee-party relationship in the House of Representatives. All three chapters delight the reader, and should interest both academics and political practitioners. Stid’s work is especially fascinating, since he shows how two sets of ideas profoundly shaped the evolution of Congress and influenced the worldviews of figures holding disparate ideologies. (See below.)

Given the editors’ avowed allegiance to James Madison, it should not be surprising that multiple authors are concerned with improving deliberation in Congress. Wolfensberger and Daniel Palazzolo (University of Richmond) both show concern that “party government” can inhibit deliberation. If most decisions are made by a small group of leaders, and if restrictive rules inhibit amending activity, members have little opportunity to discuss the merits of legislation. In a chapter on the Senate in an otherwise House-centric volume, Peter C. Hanson (University of Denver) argues that reliance on omnibus legislation can sacrifice deliberation that would be stimulated by traditional appropriations bills.

The declining role played by congressional committees concerns several of the contributors to Is Congress Broken?. Committees allow members to acquire expertise and to participate in policymaking. But, beginning with the Gingrich Speakership, committees have lost much of their importance in the House of Representatives. Committee staff has shrunk, committee hearings have been less frequent, and committees are increasingly bypassed on critical legislation. Melanie Harlowe bemoans oversight hearings that have become highly partisan, contentious, and lacking in substance. Multiple authors argue that the imposition on term limits on Republican chairs and ranking minority members has reduced the incentive to acquire expertise. They argue that committees should play a more central role in legislation, and that committee-passed bills should be more often protected in the Rules Committee. Perhaps if more members had the opportunity to engage in meaningful policymaking through committee work, they might be more vested in the ultimate outcome, and be less attracted to obstructionist tactics.

The desire to revitalize committees fits with a broader concern with expertise. After growing in the 1960s and 1970s, Congress’s in-house sources of expertise have shrunk. Not only has committee staff been slashed, but the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office have also seen their resources cut back. The Office of Technology Assessment was completely abolished in 1995. Instead, members have become increasingly dependent on lobbyists for information.  A highly centralized House, where seniority no longer carries the power it once did, gives fewer members the opportunity or incentive to build expertise.

The authors mostly show skepticism about the impact of the “party government” that has developed over the past generation. Stid traces how Woodrow Wilson’s vision influenced the 1950 APSA Report on Political Parties, and, in turn, the Democratic Study Group of the 1950s and 1960s, the post-reform Democrats of the 1970s and 1980s, and the Gingrich-led Republicans of the 1990s. Wolfensberger discussed how the latter two groups used the Rules Committee to impose “partisan governance” on the House floor, allowing the majority party to effectively shut out the minority. The discussion of the rise of party government could have benefited from more recognition of how it served as an attractive paradigm to those frustrated by existing arrangements: post-World War II liberal Democrats dissatisfied by the ability of conservative committee chairmen to block civil rights legislation or expansions of the New Deal, Reagan-Bush-era Republicans who found that a Democratic majority increasingly shut them out of policymaking.

There are some signs that the “party government” model is breaking down, at least for Republicans. Speaker John Boehner attempted to dominate the House as his immediate predecessors did. But Tea Party dissent made centralized leadership frustrating at best, impossible at worse. Paul Ryan promised a more open legislative process and a return to “regular order.” So far, he has delivered mixed results.

Several authors offer ideas to make the legislative process both smoother and more participatory. Restoring earmarks might make it easier to build majorities, although Hanson urges that earmarks be made available on a more limited scale than they were before 2010, so as to keep appropriators from being overwhelmed. But as Mark Schmitt (New America) has noted, for earmarks to work, members must want them – some members of the House Freedom Caucus take pride in their lack of interest in traditional pork barrel. Hanson and Pearson call for less reliance on omnibus legislation and other “must-pass” legislation.

While his paradigm of “political realism” suffuses this volume, Rauch actually differs from many of his fellow contributors on some key points. If several authors feel that centralized party leadership has gone too far, Rauch wants more of it, and does not see a trade-off between party government and vibrant committees. This viewpoint fits with his concern with excessive individualism, which few other contributors see as a problem that besets the present-day Congress. He also dwells on topics such as campaign finance and primaries, which appear rarely or not at all in the other writings in this volume. On the other hand, Rauch’s warning against political amateurism and defense of traditional politics are both quite timely.

Reading Is Congress Broken? would be most appropriate for journalists, political practitioners, and others interested in learning about Congress through recent scholarship. The volume’s historical perspective could be particularly helpful to those who are familiar with Capitol Hill today, but would like to learn more about how the current system evolved. Like many edited volumes, this work also allows busy readers to get up to speed on the work done by multiple scholars, without the time commitment required by entire books. (The volume grew out of a 2015 conference held at the American Enterprise Institute, and sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation).

There is a reason why Is Congress Broken? ends in a question mark. Connelly and Pitney, in particular, appear comfortable with a legislative branch that features partisan conflict and self-interest. In fact, they see it as thoroughly compatible with Madison’s vision.  But all the authors see much that could be improved. Congress needs to become better equipped to play a co-equal role in our political system. And perhaps no change could do more than restoring Congress’s “brain” by revitalizing the committee system and modernizing its internal sources of expertise.

Dr. Richard Skinner (@richardmskinner) is the author of More Than Money: Interest Group Action in Congressional Elections (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).  He has taught in the Washington programs of New York University and the University of Southern California, and for Johns Hopkins University, American University, and the George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management.