Why Congress, by Philip A. Wallach (Oxford University Press, 336 pp., $29.95)
Congress is not a popular institution. Whereas presidents win office by mobilizing millions with promises of transformative change, the business of Congress is often inscrutable and disillusioning. It is where dreams die amid low-minded wrangling. Over the past 15 years, Congress’s approval rating has averaged 19 percent.
But voters are wary of the unchecked imposition of either party’s wish lists. They often favor divided government and tend to prefer that legislation be the product of congressional compromises. The problem is that Congress appears increasingly unable to produce them.
In 1884, the political scientist and future president Woodrow Wilson launched his career with a book attacking Congressional Government. Criticizing the Founders’ ideal of checks and balances—which had fragmented legislative power among the House of Representatives, Senate, the states, and the federal government—Wilson argued that “the more power is divided the more irresponsible it becomes.” He lamented that Congress provided special interests and political bosses a multitude of opportunities to block legislation without being held accountable for doing so. Instead, he endorsed Britain’s parliamentary system, which gives majority parties the full power to implement whatever sweeping reforms they propose.
Frustrated by Congress’s unwillingness to ratify their preferred schemes, progressives have repeatedly echoed Wilson’s critique. But a new book, Why Congress by Philip Wallach, focuses more on the opposite concern: that Congress is failing adequately to deliberate on and improve legislation.
“Political work is not just policy engineering,” Wallach notes. “Americans disagree with each other.” Legislative politics, Wallach suggests, should force politicians to abandon their pure preconceived schemes in order to accommodate “disparate interests, conflicting visions of the good, and divergent judgments about prudent policy.”
Wallach is skeptical of the claim that empowering a single party to enact its agenda wholesale would free politics from the corrupting influence of low motives, noting that Wilson was “far from clear on how parties themselves could overcome factions.”
Once in power, politicians often try to push sweeping policy changes that are subsequently hard to reverse, even if they originally lack popular support. Under parliamentary systems, the majority party can easily force such things through in annual budget legislation or under the threat of calling fresh elections. By contrast, the fragmentation of power in Congress has traditionally meant that expenditures are assessed bill by bill, with members having time to consider feedback from constituents before deciding how to vote. A deliberative legislative process serves to bring proposals’ flaws to the surface, to clarify the trade-offs associated with them, and to make clear who bears the burden of paying for them.
This produces a better balance between goals. Wallach notes that, during the Second World War, Congress was “responsible for figuring out how to distribute the immense burdens imposed by the war,” and successfully phased in an enormous tax hike to fund the fight. But it “stood against attempts to use the war to reorder American society” through lasting nationalizations and price controls.
Indeed, Congress is less susceptible to gridlock than President Wilson suggested. Members serving alongside one another for decades have strong incentives to develop productive working relationships. Wallach notes that a vast amount of legislation is routinely enacted with little fanfare through behind-the-scenes cooperation. And most major laws, from the Social Security Act to the Civil Rights Act to Medicare, have typically passed with large bipartisan majorities. In 2020, Congress responded rapidly to the Covid pandemic with four enormous pieces of bipartisan legislation, spending trillions of dollars within months.
Wallach points to the mid-twentieth century as an age when Congress functioned smoothly according to a spirit of comity, deliberation, and cooperation among members. Yet from 1954 to 1994, the House of Representatives was under unbroken Democratic Party control. To Republicans, this was a regime of insiders trading favors to inflate government at the expense of the taxpaying public—protected by the power of incumbency, the media, and client interest groups.
Taking inspiration from Woodrow Wilson, Newt Gingrich sought to nationalize the contest for the House into a referendum on a corrupt status quo. Wallach blames Gingrich and his successors as speaker for centralizing congressional power in the hands of the majority party’s leadership. Following Gingrich’s revolution, he suggests, Republicans still failed to get much legislation through the Senate; but bipartisan reforms became much harder to achieve.
With the national debt now exceeding GDP, Wallach argues that “our overall budgetary process is broken.” Major tax and spending decisions are now often made through omnibus agreements between leaders of both parties, without open prior deliberation or input from the rank-and-file of either party. Increasingly, this is undertaken in a context of brinksmanship, with the prospect of default on the national debt used to force members to acquiesce to whatever package is presented to them. While Wallach concedes that “Congress has kept regular appropriated spending in check,” he suggests “it has utterly failed to discipline mandatory health spending.”
Wallach similarly blames intensified congressional partisanship for the nation’s chaotic immigration situation. Pointing to border security, visas for skilled workers, welfare restrictions, penalties for past entrants, rules for employers, and resources for processing claims, he argues that “immigration policy offers so many dimensions on which to forge compromise” that it should be unnecessary to put up with porous borders, unenforced workplace laws, and a growing resident population without legal status.
Congressional institutions are unable to generate incremental and pragmatic dealmaking so long as the chambers are dominated by unified parties engaged in zero-sum combat. To escape from this impasse, Wallach hopes for the reemergence of a bloc of moderate legislators, which, he suggests, might enable more fluid coalition-building.
Congress would surely work better with less polarization and a more fragmented party system. To achieve this, some scholars have suggested reforms to boost the turnout of moderate voters in congressional primaries, the adoption of nonpartisan primaries, or even switching to a proportional-representation electoral system.
Yet before embracing any major institutional reform, it’s worth considering whether the shortcomings of the status quo are overstated. The great bulk of long-term entitlement liabilities, which now loom so large, were incurred through benefit expansions during the mid-twentieth century, when Wallach argues that Congress functioned much better. In fact, over recent decades, Congress has repeatedly trimmed Medicare with bipartisan legislation to cut the deficit—it just doesn’t boast about doing so. And it’s unclear that all sides “agree that the legal status quo is undesirable,” as Wallach suggests, when it comes to immigration policy or the absence of action on climate change.
Legislative brinksmanship over budgets may spook the markets, but it also serves a valuable democratic purpose. When opposed groups of insiders cannot resolve their differences about major fiscal priorities, it raises the salience of the issue, forces voters to pay attention, and ultimately enables public opinion to arbitrate between two clear feasible alternatives. Matters may be decided faster by decree, but democracy is a process that takes time.
Photo: Douglas Rissing/iStock