Sunday, November 18, 2012

How dysfunctional is Congress?

Well, compared to what? It's more open and transparent than in the early years, when the Senate met in secret until 1795. There's much less personal corruption than people witnessed in the 19th century. Members are better informed now that they have larger staffs and support institutions like the Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office. [Full disclosure: I was one of those staffers for 22 years.]

On the other hand, partisan divisions and gridlock on vital national policies is higher than ever before, or at least higher than at the start of the 20th century.

I like to give my students this quotation from the president of the American Political Science Association:

“The indictment against the existing system of congressional control is impressive. It is basically control over details, not over essentials. It is negative and repressive rather than positive and constructive. It reflects fear rather than confidence. It is sometimes irresponsible. It is based on no rational plan, but is an accumulation of particulars whose consequences are seldom seen in perspective. Congress has done both too much and too little in trying to discharge this phase of its responsibilities. … The Statues at Large and the annual appropriations acts are cluttered with a mass of detailed prohibitions and limitations upon administrative action. They represent in part a process of legislation by exasperation. Unfortunately, these often petty restrictions tend to continue and to accumulate. They hamper good administration and miss the mark as a means of control.”
Sounds pretty damning. And it was -- in 1945, when Leonard White wrote those words.

Since then, Congress has instituted major reforms -- in its procedures, in its committee system, in campaign laws.  But there's still a long way to go. So I agree with the analysis and recommendations of Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein, who say it is even worse than it looks.

I especially hope that the incoming Senate changes its rules to minimize use of the filibuster. But more on that later.

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