Thursday, May 30, 2013

What's the matter with Congress?

US Capitol; from
I'm teaching the American Congress course this fall; in the past I've emphasized organization of the institution and how public policy is made in conjunction with the other branches. Lately, though, Congress has been so prominently dysfunctional I've decided to reorient the course to address that.

Dysfunction is easy to define but hard to measure. It's not like Congress was wildly popular or being widely praised prior to the last few years. Ralph Nader was calling Congress "the broken branch" of government as long ago as the 1970s, and it was at the end of that decade that Glenn R. Parker and Roger H. Davidson published their famous Legislative Studies Quarterly article, "Why Do Americans Love Their Congressmen So Much More Than Congress?" And it was more than 20 years ago that I wrote an ill-considered op-ed piece for the Cedar Rapids Gazette arguing for a parliamentary system of government because Congress and the President seemed unable to resolve important issues of the day like the budget, energy and health care reform.

The few and imperfect metrics we do have, though, point in the same general direction: however much past policy making has been plagued by gridlock, and whatever the degree of public disapproval of what went on in the Capitol building, the last three years have hit historic lows. The Washington Times Futility Index for the 112th Congress (2011-2013) was 330, breaking the old record by more than 10 percent, a quantitative way of saying there were way fewer bills considered, fewer negotiations undertaken and fewer laws passed than usual. The public reduced its already-low job approval of Congress from an average of 25 percent for most of the last decade to around 10 percent. (It has since "rebounded" to around 15 percent in most polls.) Things have changed. Maybe Congress didn't work very well before--that's arguable--but today it's come completely off the track, with no sign of being able to right itself.

A Congress that's off the track is problematic for everyone, regardless of their interest in politics. A dysfunctional national government endangers all of our welfare. Government policy needs to contribute to the goals this blog is promoting--economic opportunity for all, a sustainable future, provision of public goods, and accommodation of social diversity--as well as to provide a check on the private sector. Adding to public cynicism at a time when some things are crying out for political solutions is unconscionable.

The key word in diagnosing congressional dysfunction is polarization; in other words, there is more distance now between Republican and Democratic members of Congress than there has been in any of our lifetimes. But how did this come about? And why, if the public so strongly disapproves of its results, doesn't it moderate? Legislation (or not) relates to representation. And so my Congress class will spend more time than usual analyzing public opinion in order to assess whether and how well members of Congress are representing the public.

We'll start with three accessible books that analyze the recent relationship of Congress to the public: Party Polarization in Congress by Sean Theriault (Cambridge, 2008); Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics by Morris P. Fiorina with Samuel J. Abrams (Oklahoma, 2009); and The Disappearing Center by Alan I. Abramowitz (Yale, 2010). 

Each of the books sees members of Congress as responsive to some specific constituencies, rather than to the public as a whole. These constituencies are more ideological than the general public is: in Fiorina's words (chapter 2) they have different issue concerns, hold their views with more certainty and consistency, and publicly express their positions more confrontationally, making politics a strange and unattractive (and unresponsive) activity for everyone else. The polarization of those constituencies is what's driving polarization in Congress, and the relative parity among those constituencies means each side can block the other's initiatives but can't pass its own--gridlock!

The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy
The main difference between the books' arguments is over the make-up and particularly the size of those constituencies to which Congress is responsive. Fiorina's "political class" are the people actively working in election campaigns, comprising at most 10 percent of the population... hence the "disconnect" between extreme members of Congress and the moderate majority of the public, justifying the ill repute in which most hold the national legislature. Abramowitz's "engaged public" includes anyone taking an interest in politics, particularly electoral politics. I didn't catch a percentage estimate, but it's probably at least half of the adult population, maybe moreso as turnout and interest have risen dramatically during the Bush and Obama presidencies. In this view, members of Congress are not only representing the ideological views of most people, they're engaging their attention as well.

So has representation broken down (Fiorina/Abrams), or is it working too well? Both Abramowitz and Theriault see the emergence of parliamentary-style responsible parties, in a system that requires wide-ranging dialogue and compromise to function. The disconnect, then, is not between members of Congress and the public, but between the political system and its users. My students and I will be wrestling with these questions this fall.


  1. Indeed, a tall order to assess the role of Congress, the duties, and results (as we see them). Hundreds of elected officials split between two houses begs not only the question of how would such work ideally, but how it works at all. We live in a time and place of rampant cynicism-cum-people with real problems not solvable by the elected or the masses in any quick form.
    Our current society vacillates between self-interest and social consciousness, feral anger and resigned apathy. We're unsure of our place in the world and the relationship between I and Thou. Yet we have an ethic which expects jobs to be done well by the people who hold such, be they well-paid, prestigious, or not.
    The gravity of the size of our country, population-wise, escapes some when it comes to the pragmatism of managing based on a fundamentalist view of documents such as the Constitution. Then again, emotion has supplanted pragmatism, the American-born philosophical movement, as a way to address and (hopefully) solve any and every problem we face as individuals, a country, and as both in relation to the world at large, which is, of course, very large.
    Any political system is, practically, a system of power. How individuals and collectives address and use power or accept powerlessness, is not best solved via idealism alone. How people should act is always comparable to how people do act. Also, "one person, one vote" is merely one way in which a politic comes to life (i.e. writing letters to congressmen, participating in various political practices, etc.).
    Hence, accepting a serene smallness and helplessness begets an openness to the conflicting ideals and realities we all share.

  2. So. I really like this article, even thought it might not be apt.

    I think you hit the nail on it's head, though. Congress is a "local" branch of government that must solve "national" issues. Inasmuch as congresspeople are elected and responsible to a small constituency when their job--sometimes, perhaps most times--is to fix large constituency issues. A Principal-Agent problem.

  3. Y-yes... as long as we understand "constituency" to mean something other than its conventional meaning of "those who live in the representative's district." As McCarty et al. demonstrate in the article, a representative's actual constituency--which I'd define as "those people whose opinions get taken into account when voting"--is heavily ideologically weighted. In other words, a Republican from Iowa is going to be more like a Republican from Alabama or California than he is like a Democrat from Iowa. Fiorina and Abramowitz, the two texts I'm using this fall to start the discussion, differ on how big/unrepresentative these constituencies are. STILL a principal-agent problem, in any case.


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