A record number of Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the current Congress. According to the Pew Research Center, “just 23% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Congress, while 73% have an unfavorable view.” This isn’t news; it has been the case for some time.
The debate over American polarization is dominated by electoral considerations. In fact, in that same Pew Research Center poll, Democrats (64%), Republicans (57%), and Independents (55%) alike said it is members of Congress, rather than the political system, that are to blame for the current dysfunction. There are good reasons for this belief. Members of Congress are divided along hyper-partisan lines and are engaged in perpetual campaigns, which cost huge sums of money; they have too few opportunities for getting to know their colleagues, especially across the aisle; and they work under the constraints of a twenty-four hour media cycle. Compounding these issues is the fact that America is a polarized nation, and that Americans are increasingly sorting themselves politically along geographic lines. We seek out others that think like us, and elect people like us.
But the blame is not all on the members, and focusing too myopically on voters and elections has pushed out other explanations. Congressional polarization is a combination of procedural organization and political incentives, and the current legislative process incentivizes partisan polarization.
Consider, for example, the House Committee on Rules (i.e. the Rules Committee), often referred to as an “arm of leadership” and as the “traffic cop of Congress.” The Speaker of the House appoints members directly to the Rules Committee (the minority leader “nominates” members to the committee, who are unceremoniously approved by the caucus). As a result, the Speaker has immense influence over the decisions made by the Committee. If Rules members don’t follow the Speaker’s lead, the Speaker can simply replace them with somebody that will.
This is a significant power, and it is one with significant consequences. Unlike the United States Senate, which has unlimited debate and discussion, what may be said and done to a bill is strictly limited in the House. This limitation is performed by the Rules Committee. The Rules Committee, therefore, determines which bills are considered on the floor (i.e. what has the opportunity to be law), what amendments are in order, and the terms of debate. By directing the Rules Committee to issue a rule, the Speaker determines the policies and votes in the house, controlling access to the floor.
This process effectively marries the legislative process of the House with the goals of the Republican party, particularly Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who dominates the procedural landscape. And it makes the seemingly mundane process of scheduling votes an overt partisan act. Many, if not most votes in the current Congress are meant to distinguish the two parties rather than create good public policy, enabling the parties to wage partisan wars, not just policy wars.
Not all legislative goals are policy goals.
It is important to emphasize that Congress is not the only cause, but the legislative process is arguably the backbone of today’s polarization. And the paralysis caused by it is extensive and substantial.
The 113th Congress has passed only 55 laws this year, seven fewer at this point than the 112th Congress, making it the least productive in history, according to The New York Times.
A raw count of bills passed is an overly simplistic way to measure true legislative productivity. And it begs the question: is the fact that fewer bills have become law necessarily a bad thing?
But by almost any objective standard, Congress – the House of Representatives in particular – is a total train wreck. Congress has failed to pass even the most routine legislation. The Senate passed a farm bill; the House failed at that. The Senate (finally) passed a budget and moved to go to conference with the House; the House passed a budget and refused to go to conference with the Senate. Furthermore, House Republicans have stood firmly in the way of legislation of significance. Gun control never really had a chance. And while the Senate managed to pass comprehensive immigration reform with bipartisan support, the House’s effort has fallen apart.
“The major urgent areas of concern in the country just have not been addressed,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s pretty pathetic.”
All of this failure is enabled by voters who perpetuate gridlock, and a legislative process that incentivizes it further. But another election is around the bend. As Shakespeare once promised, “Some falls are means the happier to arise.”
**Featured Image Credit: Kevin Burkett on Flickr