Congress is frustrating. I know that’s quite an understatement. We’re still waiting on the House to address immigration reform, which miraculously passed with bipartisan support in the Senate. Meanwhile, the Senate has hopefully resolved issues surrounding the approval of presidential appointees, which nearly resulted in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (D-Nev.) "nuclear option" of changing filibuster rules. There's also the ongoing student loan rate debate. These difficult and even infuriating issues are, unfortunately, just a few examples of Congressional incompetence.
Here's the thing. To a degree, Congress is actually supposed to be "dysfunctional." Congress is based on debate and disagreement; the purpose of Congress is to decide issues according to the wishes of representatives' constituencies. It would run counter to the purpose of debate and representation if every initiative and proposal in Congress were immediately passed through. We must anticipate that the legislative process will involve disagreement, but in this Congress, the fighting has gone too far.
Take the Senate. Cloture — in which a supermajority of senators can bring a bill to a vote, ending filibusters and debate — was first established in 1917. Since then, 1,406 motions for cloture have been filed, 1,011 cloture votes have taken place, and cloture has been invoked 455 times. But just since the 110th Congress' session began in 2007, 420 such motions have been filed, 295 votes have been held, and cloture has been invoked 177 times. That means 29% of all motions for cloture were filed in the last six years. That’s a lot of cloture votes, which means there’s been a lot of filibustering, including the bizarre self-filibuster by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in December 2012. Were there some filibusters that were needed to extend debate or keep focus on the issues? Sure, that's why filibusters exist, and why not all cloture measures were adopted. But that hardly accounts for Congress' recent numbers.
Debate in the House hasn't been much better. Consider the 37 votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. None of the bills in question stood any chance of proceeding, as the legislation would have been voted against in the Democrat-led Senate and vetoed by same president who passed the measure in the first place. The Affordable Care Act has its flaws and controversies, but doesn't it seem like a waste of time to vote 37 times to repeal a law, when that repeal won't go beyond the walls of the chamber? There are symbolic votes, and then there's nonsense.
Whether it’s a matter of politics or Congressional ineptitude, the public seems to be tiring of such games. Let’s compare the public approval ratings of President Barack Obama and Congress. According to an Economist poll taken from July, 53% of registered voters disapprove of Obama’s performance, while 43% approve. That’s certainly not great, but it could be far worse. When it came to Congress, 71% of registered voters disapprove, while only 7% approve. That’s pretty bad.
What can be done? There are plenty of people and groups popping up with ideas on how to fix Congress. The bipartisan group No Labels offers 12 steps to fix Congress. Some seem like common sense, but others, not so much. Requiring talking filibusters (like those by Rand Paul or Wendy Davis) seems like an interesting option that could help to limit some legislative absurdity. Other suggestions, like eliminating congressional pay if the budget doesn't pass, and establishing term limits would be nearly impossible to pass, and not actually fix the problem. The biggest and best option for voters is to vote against representatives who are unwilling to work with their colleagues. This is where the judgment of the American people can really come into play and, ultimately, fix Congress.
Congress should have some degree of dysfunction, because that’s how compromise happens, and compromise seems to do pretty well for the country. But dysfunction has reached an unacceptable level, and people are fed up. It would seem that members of Congress would do well to spend more time working together, and less time arguing.