How Congress Got So Broken

How Congress Got So Broken

REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan

The founders of the United States envisioned Congress as a co-equal branch of government, but that model of government “is effectively dead,” a new analysis by The Washington Post and ProPublica concludes.

“It has been replaced by a weakened legislative branch in which debate is strictly curtailed, party leaders dictate the agenda, most elected representatives rarely get a say, and government shutdowns are a regular threat because of chronic failures to agree on budgets,” write the Post’s Paul Kane and ProPublica’s Derek Willis.

The authors say that, based on an analysis of congressional documents and data, the legislative branch now “functions more as a junior partner to the executive, or doesn’t function at all when it comes to the country’s pressing priorities.”

The transition, they say, happened over the last 25 years, and especially over the last decade, as the political center disappeared and partisan polarization grew and the legislative arts of dealmaking and compromise gave way to partisan gridlock. “Compromise legislation, crafted over many months and allowing dozens of amendments and input from both sides, does not excite either party’s base,” they write.

The broken budget process — a key congressional responsibility — exemplifies the legislative branch’s breakdown. Even this year’s relatively smooth appropriations process, which saw five of the 12 annual funding bills enacted by the September 30 deadline — the most in 20 years — was achieved “by limiting rank-and-file involvement, shutting down the process to all but a few powerful lawmakers,” the authors say. “One $854 billion bill covered the departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, and Education — it received less than four days of debate in mid-August, and senators were only allowed to offer five amendments, four of which were so noncontroversial they passed unanimously.”

As party leaders tightened their grip on the legislative process, one result is that “on major issues, the average member of Congress waits for leadership to emerge from behind closed doors and instruct them how to vote,” the authors write. And as votes on rank-and file amendments faded away, the Senate is now “primarily there to confirm the president’s selections,” they say: “More than 55 percent of roll call votes now come on nominations, up dramatically from a decade ago when those votes accounted for less than 10 percent of Senate action.”

The bottom line: Tuesday’s elections might change the balance of power in Congress, but they’re not likely to change these basic dynamics. What could? “One solution, offered by longtime Washington hands, is to break away from the now-accepted weekly schedule of being in session just two full days a week.”

Read the whole story at ProPublica.