Congress Isn't Acting As the Founders Intended


Last week, William Bennett wrote on CNN that the current mire in Congress is far from the worst fate of the country. Bennett contends that slow government is what many of the Founders intended. Those with opposing views need to work together and compromise on important issues. Our political system is in deadlock; neither side is willing to back down or compromise. Bennett believes that this deadlock is not a problem, and that it helps focus the national debate on important subjects.

Bennett’s assertion of the Founders' intention is correct. The Founders did not want a government that could make important decisions rashly, without minority parties' having a say in the matter. They wanted compromise to be the end result. Today, though, there is no incentive for elected officials of either major party to compromise, and Congress is at the root of the problem. Due to various rules changes in Congress, parties' hold over their members has been strengthened.

The way Congress functions today more closely resembles an imperfect parliamentary government than a bicameral legislature. In a parliamentary system, the party with the majority elects the executive. This ensures that legislation will pass quickly and the policies of the dominant party are passed.

In such a system, there is no incentive for parties to cooperate unless the majority is formed by a coalition of parties. As is the case in the United Kingdom now, our system shares a similar lack of cooperation.

Over the last 20 years, our government has moved closer to a parliamentary model. There was a time not so long ago when reaching across the aisle for support on a bill was commonplace. However, getting anything passed in Congress today requires holding a majority in the House and a super-majority in the Senate. Of course, our version of the parliamentary system is imperfect; controlling the House and the Senate as well as the White House is no easy feat. So while Congress needs a unitary government to function effectively, the chances of a unitary government's existing are small. Instead, what we are left with is a government that is highly ineffective most of the time.

For instance, when health care reform came before Congress, Democrats, despite controlling both the House and Senate, had to resort to the complicated task of reconciliation to pass the legislation. Using reconciliation to pass legislation only works if the bill deals with the budget in some way.

During most of the 20th century, both parties had minimal control over members’ actions. Now, both parties have tools to manage unruly incumbents. For instance, with the abolition of seniority rules for committee seats in the 1970’s, parties gained a powerful tool to entice members to follow the party line: If you do not obey, you do not get on a committee. Both parties also gained considerable influence over members through campaign donations and the primary system. The importance of primaries in particular has made our system resemble a parliamentary system; if a candidate upsets the party, they might not even win the nomination to run on a party ticket. 

Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) lost the Democratic primary largely because of political beliefs that fell outside of the Democrat’s perspective. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Ala.) lost the Republican primary in 2010 for the same reason. Both candidates managed to retain their seats, but not without sustaining strong pressure to stand aside. With all these constraints, stepping out of line is a much more complicated task.

The rules of the Senate further exacerbate this trend, something PolicyMic pundit Sal Bommarito touched upon last week. One senator can anonymously place a hold on a piece of legislation. Until that senator lifts the hold, the bill will not reach the floor without the 60 votes needed for an override. The hold gives the minority party a powerful tool to halt any legislation that they do not agree with. A party could control the House, hold the presidency, have 59 votes in the Senate, and still have legislation effectively stalled. The hold is a filibuster that cannot be waited out and that no senator has to own.

This is where Bennett misses the mark. The power of the party system and the rules of Congress actually create an incentive to avoid compromise altogether, and have caused obstructionist politics to become so prevalent in the capital. The minority party can gain a tactical advantage by painting the majority party as ineffective through obstructionism. Better to take your chances in the next election cycle than compromise.

And so our government now resembles an imperfect parliamentary system, with the minority party having a fairly effective veto, and neither party having much incentive to cooperate. This isn’t what the Founders had in mind.

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