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Why Congress?

Why Congress?

Philip Wallach offers a bold defense of Congress and its ability to work through America's deep divisions.

Daniel Stid
Why Congress
by Philip Wallach (Oxford University Press, 336 pp., $29.95)

Americans are notoriously ambivalent about Congress, even though it is the first branch of our constitutional government and the one meant to be closest to citizens. Our mixed feelings for what is ostensibly the people’s branch arise because it hosts things we don’t like about politics and government. Shameless partisanship? Check! Arcane procedures? Check! Grinding gridlock? Excruciating tradeoffs? Check!

When the wheels of legislation do manage to turn, it is typically via the log-rolling, horse-trading, skid-greasing, jerry-rigging, and backroom-dealing we tend to find stomach-turning. No wonder that, since 2010, the proportion of Americans approving Congress’s performance in surveys has fluctuated in the depths between 10 and 30 percent.

Political and policy elites have held that the low esteem Americans have for Congress is justified and then some. In 2012, Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein, then at Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) respectively, made this wisdom conventional with It’s Even Worse Than it Looks. The book did represent a departure in one respect: it abjured the normal bipartisan critique and squarely blamed Republicans for the problems of Congress.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Mann and Ornstein traced the decline of Congress to the caustic, anti-institutional ideology spread by Newt Gingrich and his GOP acolytes in their rise to power. This malign ethos had, in their view, subsequently been renewed by the Tea Party Republicans. In 2016, reckoning with the rise not only of Ted Cruz and Mark Meadows, but also Donald Trump, they amplified the alarm bells, entitling their second edition, It’s Even Worse than It Was.

Against this backdrop, Philip Wallach, a senior fellow at AEI, has written Why Congress. It is a timely and stellar work. His book is not so much an assessment of contemporary politics, though he offers an insightful one, but rather a reflection on the timeless first principles underlying the institution.

Wallach opens with what he suggests is a “simple argument,” to wit:

Americans disagree with each other. We have disparate interests, conflicting visions of the good, and divergent judgments about prudent policy. Nevertheless, we must find ways to accommodate each other in addressing the biggest problems of the day, and Congress is the place we must do it.

With the exception of that last clause, this is indeed a straightforward proposition. But contending that Congress is the institution through which Americans must resolve our major differences, if we are to resolve them at all? Not so much!

In Why Congress, Wallach simultaneously provokes, explains, and justifies. He does so by demonstrating that the full diversity and the resulting clash of interests encompassed in Madison’s extended republic can only be represented and thus reconciled in Congress. Despite its maddening flaws, our national legislature is the indispensable institution our disputatious democracy needs to function.

Wallach’s counter-intuitive judgments are bracing and compelling. Rather than too much conflict in Congress, he insists we don’t have enough, or at least not of the right kind. Rank and file members need to exercise more initiative in pursuing their legislative agendas, not less. Polarization is not the fundamental problem we perceive it to be; the issue is deeper: members of Congress failing to represent the nation’s underlying pluralism.

How and why did we get here­–and where might we go from here? Wallach’s answers range from the origins and development of parliament in medieval England to future scenarios for Congress on its 250th anniversary in 2039. Much of his analysis rests on the contrast he draws between two competing conceptions of politics. One originated in the political theory and practice of James Madison, the other in that of Woodrow Wilson.

Madisonian politics is anchored in the legislature. It acknowledges and works with the grain of the separation of powers and checks and balances. Elections matter, to be sure, as periodic and recurring means of accountability to the public. More importantly, they reset the table for the subsequent hard work of building, dissolving, and reforming coalitions to address the big problems we face as a society.

Madisonian politics thus occur both during and, especially, in between elections. Factions are inevitable in a free society and tend to conglomerate along rival but permeable party lines. The difficulty of building and sustaining majorities capable of governing amid all this institutional complexity is a feature, not a bug, of Madisonian politics.

Wilsonian politics, in contrast, seeks to impose itself on and simplify the dynamics of our Madisonian arrangements. Wilson held that the separation of powers was a “radical defect” in the Constitution; the antidote was concentrated “power and strict accountability for its use.” This extra-constitutional integration occurs via visionary presidential leadership and the more “responsible,” ideologically coherent parties that it invokes.

Elections in Wilsonian politics thus have higher, even apocalyptic stakes attached to their outcomes. The popular majorities that voters establish should then be able to sweep through and work their will in Congress, overcoming parochial or partisan opponents as a fresh broom sweeps clean.

Since the Progressive Era, Wilsonians have contended that the demands of modern government and social complexity will inevitably bring bold presidents and responsible parties to the fore. Wallach tests this assumption and finds it wanting. He does so via two case studies of Madisonian politics at historical moments we have tended to see, incorrectly it turns out, as Wilsonian. He details how Congress enabled the United States to successfully prosecute World War II, checking and balancing President Franklin D. Roosevelt in critical and consequential ways. And he demonstrates it was Congress, not the Supreme Court nor President Lyndon B. Johnson, that effectively granted African Americans their long overdue civil rights, not least by reconciling White Southerners to this outcome.

Even as these success stories were playing out, however, Wilsonians were gaining the upper hand in the realmsof ideas and practical politics. In the aftermath of World War II, liberal and reform-minded academics working under the auspices of the American Political Science Association issued a landmark report entitled “Toward A More Responsible Two-Party System.” Published in 1950, the report represented a frontal assault on the Madisonian Congress and the heterogenous, coalitional parties that operated within it.

National Democratic Party officials, and a growing caucus of liberal Democratic legislators, seized upon the report’s recommendations. Over the next three decades, they steadily put its prescription into practice, nationalizing the Democratic Party and making its congressional majorities more consistently liberal, that is, “responsible.”

At the outset of Why Congress, Wallach introduces a pendulum framework for Congress that suggests that its internal structure swings over time, often to the point of diminishing returns, between “openness” and “tight control.” The goal is to find and stay at a happy medium—not easy to do given it is a moving target. Alas, this framework is less helpful for understanding the pivotal developments Wallach tracks in the Democratic-controlled Congress of the 1970s. The opening and controlling impulses played out simultaneously, as liberal activists among the Democratic rank and file and their caucus leaders mutually reinforced each other’s efforts to gain more power at the expense of the more conservative committee chairmen.

Republicans soon followed suit. GOP minorities in Congress, increasingly enlivened by Ronald Reagan’s conservatism, and finding themselves marginalized by the more coherently liberal and forcefully led Democratic majorities, likewise turned on the Madisonian aspects of Congress. Growing numbers of GOP lawmakers preferred the Wilsonian ideal in which ideological parties drew sharp distinctions with each other and sought clear mandates from voters. By the 1980s, this burgeoning faction had found a quirky but relentless standard bearer in Newt Gingrich.

Ever since, Wilsonians have prevailed over Madisonians in both congressional parties. Wallach describes the resulting standoff as “the triumph of partisan posturing over politics.” He uses the example of immigration policy to highlight how, in the new environment, lawmakers have found it more difficult to forge legislative solutions to pressing national problems. And try as they might—and have—presidents, the Supreme Court, and state governors cannot resolve such problems in the face of congressional inaction. Indeed, their misguided and unilateral efforts to do so have only served to amplify the polarization that makes congressional policy settlements difficult to achieve in the first place.

Even when Congress manages to act decisively, as it did during COVID, it does so without the free-wheeling and extended debate needed to surface and resolve dilemmas posed by competing priorities. Legislation without deliberation cannot begin to reconcile lawmakers on the losing side—and those they represent—to the enacted policies, a legitimacy gap that widened as the pandemic wore on. As Wallach laments, “we needed leadership, and they gave us cash.”

The assessment offered in Why Congress is sobering about how far the institution has fallen. Yet Wallach is hopeful, resolute even, about the possibility of its revival. To avoid spoiler alerts, I will forgo detailed descriptions of his good, bad, and ugly scenarios for the future of Congress and simply note that each one is illuminating and plausible.

Wallach forgoes the inevitably underwhelming final chapter in books like his conveying the author’s detailed reform recommendations. He does note some elements that would likely feature prominently in a revived Congress. They include, for example, intra-party factionalism, cross-party coalitions, open debates, and stronger committees. But he doesn’t prescribe or predict with any specificity how we will get from here to there.

Such an open-ended conclusion is fitting for a book that sees politics as a creative and constructive activity, one undertaken by men and women of honorable ambition. In a post-script, “An Open Letter to America’s Legislators,” Wallach encourages them to:

Put America’s many factions into motion, let them poke and prod and appease and accommodate each other, to collectively find our way forward on the biggest issues of our time…. If you practice politics correctly, these encounters will generate new ways of understanding our country’s challenges, new ways for citizens and government to relate to each other, new ways to turn our country’s collective might toward pursuit of a more perfect union…. it is by arguing and deciding together with your peers that you provide the focal point of our political freedom.

In Why Congress, then, Wallach has equipped not only constituents and scholars of Congress but also its members—and those who aspire to be—with an essential guide to the institution.

Daniel Stid, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is the Executive Director at Lyceum Labs and blogs at The Art of Association.

Image: A still of actor Jimmy Stewart as Senator Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939. (Prints and Photographs division, Library of Congress)

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