Time for Congress to Choose Deliberation Over Dysfunction

02 June, 2023
Philip Wallach

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 be broken open for transformation to actually happen. Congress really is at an inflection point and we’ve had the battles, the extreme partisanship, the dysfunction, and sadly that’s become the norm, not the exception in Congress. So we want to look at, what’s the way out? Is there a path out of the current morass? Is there a way for the legislative body to actually be a legislative body, a place for great debate, for ideas to drive, and to have conversations in front of the American people that ultimately end up in good policy for the country, not for the politics and the performative politicians? Well, we’re really pleased to have joining us on the program Phil Wallach, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies American Separation of Powers, and a great new read that everyone needs to check out, Why Congress, and Phil welcome to the show.

Philip Wallach: Thanks so much for having me

Matheson: So let’s dive into this. We’re on the same page when it comes to believing that Congress is broken. The test is whether it can be broken open and transformed. You’ve laid out some real plausible paths in terms of how do we actually get to deliberation — restoring the government’s ability to work for the American people.

Wallach: I think that the bottom line of the book is that, the way Congress is today is not the way it has always been. It has been a place with decentralized power centers in the past, and the reason it does not operate that way today — that it’s dominated by top partisan leaders whose main focus is making the other side look bad — that’s really a function of choices that the members themselves have made in organizing their respective chambers. The message of the book is really in large part for them: you can organize this in a different way. If you want to be more meaningful legislators whose job doesn’t just consist of pulling the levers the way your leaders tell you to and raising dollars, but you actually want to be involved in the work of legislation, of figuring out what kind of coalitions you can bring forth from the diverse elements of the American people, it’s up to you. That option is on the table if you are willing to pursue it.

Matheson: I love that because it is different coalitions of governing and dealing with different issues in a different way and one of the things that I love that you’ve attacked Phil, is the fact that over time, because of this dysfunction and what they have allowed themselves to become, often it’s working around Congress, rather than through Congress, which is where things are supposed to be solved.

Wallach: I think when Congress allows itself to be a place where we settle for calling each other names and not coming to any decisions in the end — its ok if we call each other names if we’re willing to come to some decisions, by the way I don’t mind the name calling so much — but when it decides to just let the status quo ride and not pass new laws, well power abhors a vacuum and the executive branch and courts come rushing in, and they become our primary policy makers. That just doesn’t work very well. They are not well positioned to make legitimate policy, which is what Congress is there for.

Matheson: So you lay out in your book three plausible paths that Congress can take from here. And I want to dive into each of these because I think they are really fascinating to consider, especially in light of what we have been dealing with during the past few weeks. So let’s start with this idea of decrepitude: tell us what that is and why is that a plausible path. What do we need to do?

Wallach: Unfortunately all we need to do to get to the decrepitude scenario is one of the same things that we have become pretty used to. So to be fair the current Congress is not completely broken, right, I think there is a fair amount of hyperbole in the media when we talk about it. There are plenty of things that still work on Capitol Hill, a lot of them are lower profile. Things can get a lot more broken than they are: we could have a lot more government shutdowns, we could have a default on the debt one of these years, and we could fail to properly fund our military. All those things are things we mainly manage to keep going for now. So, if we keep letting the partisan enmity become the sort of be all and end all of Congress, I think even those things that work alright, they are likely to decay and leave us in a place where we really expect the executive branch to just work around, come up with weird legal arguments to do whatever it wants. That’ll just become the norm and everyone will kind of say “oh isn’t it too bad we do things that way,” but we’ll get used to it and to an alarming extent we are already kind of used to that.

Matheson: When Congress fails to do its job or abdicates its power to the executive branch, the executive branch, regardless of which party is in the White House, will gladly use it to do things by executive orders, then things get involved in the courts and that just keeps rolling. And I love the way you described it: a peanut gallery of angry onlookers. So, let’s go to the next plausible path which is really about just the rubber stamp status.

Wallach: Right, so sometimes when people think about reforming Congress they think, “oh man Congress screws everything up. What we need to do reform it is make it less obnoxious and get it out of the way. Basically, accept the fact that policymaking is going to move into the executive branch and make sure that Congress is basically more pliant and goes along with what the president wants.” And so in some ways that is an appealing vision in terms of being able to efficiently make sensible policy. The executive branch does have some advantages by virtue of being unitary — of having one boss at the top of it. That makes things simpler and that has some appeal. But at the same time, if we go that route, if Congress becomes this rubber stamp, we really lose the essence of politics, we lose the essence of self-government and we are going to feel more and more like we are just governed by some alien elite in Washington — which of course we already have a pretty strong sense of today. That’s a very dangerous scenario as far as I am concerned.

Matheson: Yeah absolutely, and the way you framed it in the book, that Congress just becomes this venue for cheap talk, but no real meaningful deliberation or elevated dialogue. So, that leads us to the last of the plausible paths for Congress and that’s renewal. Describe that for us.

Wallach: My sense of what’s really at the essence of Congress comes from James Madison and especially the very famous argument in Federalist 10 where he talks about the interplay of factions, creating a sense of balance, and protecting against abuses by putting these factions into motion and setting them against each other — setting them in the process of having to accommodate each other. And that’s really what Congress needs to do, that’s its institutional advantage: to be a place where all these different factions can have voices and find ways of creating coalitions of strange bedfellows and producing unexpected things. Congress really ought to be a place of real interest that surprising things come out of — you sort of mix up all the elements of American life and see what they manage to come up with together. It ought to be kind of surprising and not just a matter of implementing some pre-determined partisan agenda. The revival or renewal scenario depends on restoring this sense of factional interplay, getting it so that it’s not just all about the two sides’ top partisan leaders making deals in the backroom, but actually letting a broader mix of elements come into interaction with each other and seeing what happens.

Matheson: So important, this is an important read. Why Congress. Phil Wallach is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and this is what he studies: America’s Separation of Powers. This is so important. Phil I love the way you break it down in terms of some simple things that we can all wrap our heads and say, “wait a minute that is what the founding fathers had in mind when they made a representative deliberative legislative process to keep the country and the Constitution a Republic moving forward”. Phil thanks so much for joining us today, great read, great insight and research as always. We look forward to having you back to continue the conversation.

Wallach: Really appreciate it, thanks a lot.