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?
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 Development, Fortune, National Affairs, National Review, Law & Liberty, the Los Angeles Times, POLITICO, RealClearPolicy, The American Interest, The Bulwark, The Hill, The Wall Street Journal, The 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.
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.
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.
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.
Sign up to receive the latest updates about the book.