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The Sausage Factory

Is Congress Really “Useless”?

CNN recently asked the public to describe #CongressInOneWord, and unfortunately for Congress, the top adjective was “useless”.

Look on the bright side: Things could be a lot worse. As American humorist Will Rogers once noted, “Papers say: ‘Congress is deadlocked and can’t act.’ I think that is the greatest blessing that could befall this country.”

Although Americans grouse about congressional inactivity, in reality, they might want to be careful what they wish for.

Over the past few decades, Democrats in Congress have become more liberal and Republicans have become more conservative. This is a reflection of electoral dynamics. By and large, most Members come from “safe” districts, meaning voters reliably elect representatives who are from one party. In other words, voters are not in the mood for much variation from Congress to Congress. This suggests that their values and policy preferences have become set—and the Reds and Blues have become dead set against each other.   To a large degree, the gridlock in Congress reflects the divisions in the public at large.

However, for Congress to become more “useful”—if utility is measured in terms of legislation passed—the two parties would have to compromise. The Republican-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate would need to concur on all bills passed. Further, in the Senate, where the minority can easily hold up the majority, the two parties would also have to come to some agreements on policy.  In reality, the House has sent more than 500 bills to the Senate this Congress—just not too many that the Senate is willing or able to pass.

Compromise has traditionally been a good thing, however many activists in both parties view it with suspicion. Each election, some incumbents who try to work with the opposing party find themselves in competitive primary races against challengers who are more conservative Republicans or more liberal Democrats. Anticipating such challenges, some Members cast votes against compromise or more “moderate” legislation even if they might not actually be opposed. Members who do vote for compromise or centrist legislation can find themselves back in the private sector quickly. Such a dilemma makes resolving the nation’s problems exceedingly difficult—if the Members actually care about reelection.

Congress frequently is more productive when one party controls both Chambers along with the White House. This was the case in the first two years of President Barack Obama’s first term. The Democratic Congress legislated with gusto. They weren’t useless—not by a long shot. But what they passed (Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, the nearly trillion-dollar stimulus, Cash-for-Clunkers, etc.) angered enough Americans to turn over control of the House and many state legislatures and governors’ mansions to the Republicans in the 2010 landslide. Americans may not want the Congress they have now, but they don’t seem to want the alternative either.

Admittedly, Congress has many problems, some political and some procedural. For instance, in theory, it should finish with the appropriations process by the end of next month. It most likely won’t, and in that case, it will have to pass one or more continuing resolutions to keep the government funded. This has sadly been a standard practice for years – the last time the Congress and the President completed the budget process on time was in 1997.

Yes, Congress does need to be more effective, but the level of productivity the public demands might be impossible, given the institution’s political gridlock before the November elections. Changing the culture of the Congress requires that the American people as a whole come to a consensus and make clear decisions and choices about what direction they want the country to move in.

As the great Winston Churchill once said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the other forms that have ever been tried from time to time.”  So far, most of us still agree.

Mark Strand is the President of the Congressional Institute and Timothy Lang is a research assistant. The Sausage Factory blog is a Congressional Institute project dedicated to explaining parliamentary procedure, Congressional politics, and other issues pertaining to the legislative branch.

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