About the Book

Like it or not, our country’s future depends on Congress. The Founding Fathers made a representative, deliberative legislature the indispensable pillar of the American constitutional system, giving it more power and responsibility than any other branch of government. Yet today, contempt for Congress is nearly universal. To a large extent, even members of Congress themselves are unable to explain and defend the value of their institution.

Why Congress takes on this challenge squarely, explaining why our increasingly divided politics demand a legislature capable of pitting factions against each other and forcing them to work out accommodations.

Why Congress covers the past, present, and future of the institution to understand how it has become so dysfunctional, but also to suggest how it might be restored. The book vividly shows how a healthy Congress made it possible for the country to work through some of its most difficult challenges, including World War II and the struggle for civil rights. But transformations that began in the 1970s ultimately empowered congressional leaders to suppress dissent within their own parties and frame a maximally divisive agenda. In stark contrast to the earlier episodes, where legislators secured durable political resolutions, in facing contemporary challenges, such as immigration and COVID-19, Congress has exacerbated divisions rather than searching for compromises with broad appeal.

But Congress’ power to organize itself suggests a way out. While Congress could accept its descent into decrepitude or cede its power to the president, a Madisonian revival of deliberation can yet restore our system of government’s ability to work through deep divides.


Factions—whether interest based or tribal, ideological or religious—divide our society, and their divisiveness can seem noxious and intolerable. Yet our constitutional order demands that we actively and faithfully represent them in a powerful, thriving legislature. Why? Being a free, self- governing people requires committing to a political system that copes with our differences rather than trying to suppress them.

This process will cause endless frustration, and it won’t generally yield policies that economists or other specialists would design. But when Congress works, its fluctuating coalitions act as engines of national cohesion, and our rep­resentatives are able to make regular adjustments to the demands of a changing world. A viable and functional politics is far more valuable to our social well- being than a few technocratically optimal policy choices ever could be.

Why Congress shows how during World War II and in the push to end racial segregation that culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legislators embraced their manyness and managed to guide the nation through sacrifice and tumult. The Madisonian balancing acts that they performed were not always lovely—faithfully representing all of America’s factions seldom is. But they nevertheless succeeded in holding America together when immense strains might have pulled the nation apart.

However, the decentralized committee system that facilitated Congress’s successes in World War II and the civil rights era broke down in the face of liberal demands for reform in the 1970s. Chafing under powerful Southern chairmen, reformers experimented with radical decentralization that opened the legislature to the messy plurality of American society. The ensuing chaos drove the institution to embrace centralization under powerful, partisan leaders.

Now largely excluded from power in these years, conservatives began to regard Congress as hopelessly corrupted. While this vision brought them unprecedented electoral success in 1994, their commitment to further consolidation of leadership power and institutional skepticism crippled their own legislative agenda.

With both parties embracing tight leadership control of the legislative agenda, deliberation has suffered. As a result, today’s Congress flattens America’s complex diversity instead of representing it. The ensuing legislative gridlock has left the executive branch and courts to sort much of our policymaking out – often with uncertain and illegitimate results.

Why Congress examines Congress’s role in contemporary immigration policy and during the COVID-19 pandemic to explore how Congress’s transformation leaves it unable to solve some of our most difficult challenges.

In contrast to the broad-based coalition-building behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964, proponents of immigration reform, including congressional leaders, tried and failed to secure victory through manipulation of the legislative process. Stymied in Congress, advocates turned to unilateral presidential action, which delivered short-term results but little legal certainty over the course of more than a decade of litigation.

During the pandemic, Congress put massive resources at the executive’s disposal for fighting the virus and minimizing its economic harms. But, unlike World War II, the Congressd did very little to create a sense of fairness on the home front. Lawmakers simply ignored many of the most difficult questions posed by the virus and repeatedly deferred to public health bureaucracies, despite their practical and political failures.

The great economist and political commentator Herb Stein famously quipped: “If something can’t go on forever, it will stop.” Does that mean that the current evolution of Congress away from substantive compromise and toward symbolic confrontation must come to an end soon? Should we expect that, any day now, members will swing the pendulum away from tight leader control and toward more open deliberation? Will “ambition counteracting ambition” revive a lively interplay of diverse factions, regardless of leaders’ attempts to impose rigid partisan lines?

With each passing year, it takes a bit more wishful thinking to suppose such a reversal is imminent. Maybe the trend toward members of Congress acting as partisan foot soldiers is here to stay. Maybe congressional marginalization in the policymaking process can go on forever—maybe Congress’ best days are long gone.

Why Congress explores three potential futures from Congress to make clear what is at stake for our country. What will we lose if we choose to accept congressional dysfunction as an indelible aspect of our constitutional fabric? If we face up to our legislature’s shortcomings head on, might formal reforms that reduce its responsibilities improve our system of governance? Or, alternatively, what must change for Congress to experience a renaissance?



About the Author

Philip Wallach is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies America’s separation of powers, with a focus on regulatory policy issues and the relationship between Congress and the administrative state.

Before joining AEI, Dr. Wallach was a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, where he authored To the Edge: Legality, Legitimacy, and the Responses to the 2008 Financial Crisis (Brookings Institution Press, 2015). He was later affiliated with the R Street Institute and served as a fellow with the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress in 2019.

Dr. Wallach’s scholarly and popular work has been published widely, including in the Brookings Center on Regulation and Markets, Studies in American Political DevelopmentFortuneNational AffairsNational Review, Law & Liberty, the Los Angeles TimesPOLITICO, RealClearPolicy, The American Interest, The Bulwark, The HillThe Wall Street JournalThe Washington Post, and TIME.

Dr. Wallach received his master’s and doctorate in politics from Princeton University and his bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University’s College of Social Studies.



While few would claim that the contemporary Congress is uniting the nation or solving our most vexing problems, Why Congress lays out a convincing case that this is exactly what the institution was designed to do, has done in the past, and could do once again. This engaging book is a must-read for anyone concerned about restoring the health of our nation, including members of Congress who should be moved to heed Wallach’s call to revitalize the institution.

- Dan Lipinski, Former Member of Congress


At a time when so many observers of the American political system see only dysfunction and failure, Why Congress offers a rich and refreshing defense of Congress’s role in the constitutional system. Wallach offers a positive vision for how Congress can work well, illustrated with detailed historical examples. The result is a set of realistic benchmarks by which to evaluate the contemporary institution and to guide its renewal.

- Frances Lee, Professor of Politics and Public Affairs, Princeton University


This book is at once scholarly and lively, rigorous, and irreverent – and it makes the value of a fully functional Congress admirably clear. Surveying past practice and a range of possible futures, Wallach shows how the First Branch might enrich a democratic republic rather than opt for institutional irrelevance. Why Congress is a stirring call to treat ‘politics’ not as a curse-word but as the essence of republican governance. It displays just what we’re missing when we, the people, allow legislators to avoid the messy but coalition-building business of representative deliberation.

- Andrew Rudalevige, Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of Government, Bowdoin College


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.

- Daniel Stid, Executive Director at Lyceum Labs, in a review for American Purpose

Book Events

  • 1. Why Congress: A Book Event - June 8, 4:00-5:15 p.m.

    On June 8, AEI’s Philip Wallach and Kevin R. Kosar were joined by former Reps. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) and Reid Ribble (R-WI) to discuss Dr. Wallach’s new book Why Congress (Oxford University Press, 2023) and participate in a wide-ranging conversation on the past, present, and future of the legislative branch. Dr. Wallach began by presenting Why Congress’s argument for the necessity of a functional Congress: It is the only place that allows the many different factions in America to brush up against each other and produce policies. He continued by explaining Congress’s institutional history, starting from its Madisonian origins, through the Wilsonian reforms in the early 20th century, to its current state of dysfunction. He concluded by exhorting members of Congress to return their body to its deliberative roots to keep the country from falling apart. Reps. Lipinski and Ribble then spoke about their time as members of Congress, providing an inside view of the dysfunction they experienced. They highlighted that the Speaker of the House’s excessive powers hinder Congress from functioning as the deliberative body it was intended to be. In a Q&A, participants addressed how the circumstances surrounding Congress in the 1970s and 1990s contributed to its current debilitated state.
Watch Here


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The Dispatch

The Dispatch The Supreme Court’s recent affirmative action and student loan decisions have critics fuming, claiming the justices made themselves into a kind of super-legislature. Who are these robed figures to tell universities how to establish admissions criteria, or to deny struggling debtors some financial relief? But critics ignore the histories of both policies, which […]

Who Controls the House after the Debt-Limit Deal?

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There is still time for members — not necessarily the original insurgents — to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the deal Kevin McCarthy was forced to make.

If We Give Up on Congress, What Will We Lose?


Arbitrary government, indifferent to the concerns of the citizenry, is as live a possibility as ever. If we persist in wishing that Congress would sometimes just get out of the way, we may find that we were wishing on the monkey’s paw.

The Emotive Presidency

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Americans’ disillusionment with the grand promises of the rhetorical style have created the space for a narrower and more jaded sort of representation by presidents.

As Seen in the Press


The Wall Street Journal Names Why Congress as a 2023 Best Book in Politics

The Wall Street Journal has named Why Congress as one of the best books on politics written in 2023. In the Journal, Barton Swaim writes, “Why Congress”—no question mark, no subtitle—is perhaps the most important book on politics published in 2023. In recent years an assemblage of liberal writers has argued that Congress’s troubles began […]

Why Congress needs to be revitalized, with Philip Wallach

Niskanen Center

AEI Senior Fellow Philip Wallach joined Geoff Kabaservice, the Vice President of Political Studies at the Niskanen Center, to discuss how Wallach’s new book, Why Congress, answers the many questions surrounding Congress today. Listen here.

Why Congress?

Politics in Question

AEI Senior Fellow Philip Wallach joined Lee Drutman, Senior Fellow at New America, and James Wallner, Senior Fellow at the R Street Institute and a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Clemson University, to discuss Wallach’s new book Why Congress and the state of Congress today. Listen here.

Philip Wallach and Isaac Saul Discuss the Functionality of Congress

Tangle News

AEI Senior Fellow Philip Wallach joined Isaac Saul from Tangle News to discuss his new book, Why Congress, and make his case for why we need to reform Congress. Watch here.

Congress, Two Beers In Podcast: Why Congress with Philip Wallach 

Government Affairs Institute

Matt and Josh are joined by special guest Philip Wallach from the American Enterprise Institute to discuss his new book, Why Congress.

Time for Congress to Choose Deliberation Over Dysfunction

Inside Sources With Boyd Matheson

This is a transcript from a conversation on Inside Sources with Boyd Matheson. It has been edited for clarity. You can listen to the full conversation here. Boyd Matheson: As we’ve been discussing all week this week, it is very clear that Congress is broken. The question is: will it be broken open? It has to […]

Philip Wallach on the Debt Limit and Divided Government


Philip Wallach talked about his book, Why Congress, and the divided Congress as it grapples with raising the debt ceiling on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal program.

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