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The Tragicomedy of Congressional Dysfunction

The Tragicomedy of Congressional Dysfunction

Dear Reader —

Congress is broken. Despite majorities in both chambers, GOP lawmakers have accomplished far less than conservatives had hoped after November 2016. They have certainly not lived up to conservative expectations of a reinvigorated First Branch. Even on issues for which there is apparent bipartisan agreement, there has been little to no legislative action. Such bouts of inactivity seem interrupted only by periodic threats of shutdown over routine budgetary matters.

Congressional Republicans can no longer blame this state of affairs on the fact that they lack a willing partner in the White House. While it is true that they possess only a narrow majority in the Senate, this fact serves to emphasize, rather than explain away, legislative dysfunction.

The cause? Polarization. The parties have moved farther apart, as members increasingly hew to incompatible ideologies, making common ground hard to come by and bipartisan agreement nearly impossible. Legislative matters once deemed uncontroversial now regularly get embroiled in ideological disputes, producing gridlock. To fix Congress, we must first overcome polarization. 

Such, at least, is the conventional wisdom. But is it true?

Not according to the R Street Institute’s Philip Wallach and James Wallner. They argue that, however plausible it sounds, the “polarization thesis” is not supported by evidence. Research on congressional dysfunction focuses on one particular measure of legislator ideology: recorded roll-call votes. Here the data are clear: Members of opposing parties tend increasingly to vote in opposite ways. So, scholars conclude, polarization is increasing.

But roll-call votes don’t tell the whole story, according to Wallach and Wallner. What about those issues that never receive roll-call votes in the first place? What these data show is only that congressional leaders have “refined the art of restricting roll-call votes to just those matters that serve to unify their caucus.” In other words, votes only happen on polarized issues, where party leaders know they can expect a high degree of consensus. “Minimizing conflict” in this way creates the appearance of unity within parties; it also creates the appearance of polarization between them. And, indeed, it creates the reality of gridlock.

Why would congressional leaders do this? It protects them “from having to cast tough votes that could be used against them in their effort to secure re-election.” Congressional leaders don’t want to risk anything by voting on issues where there is genuine disagreement within their own parties — which is to say, many if not most issues. In other words, they don’t want to legislate.

It’s a disconcerting diagnosis. If true, it means that reforms aimed at minimizing disagreement on the Hill miss the mark. What Wallach and Wallner propose instead is a “freewheeling process in the House and Senate that gives our legislators the chance to grapple with the key issues of the day without knowing exactly what kinds of compromises they will be able to end up at.” This would not always yield legislative results, much less the ones preferred by the party in power. But it would require members of Congress to do their job. And it would also help align their efforts “with the expectations of the American people.” 

But how do you motivate lawmakers to change their ways? Our constitutional system of checks and balances was designed to channel ambition — of individual statesmen as well as those of the three branches of government — into stable institutions of government. What is to be done with statesmen who lack ambition, or whose only ambition is reelection? 

In “The Abolition of Man,” C.S. Lewis lamented the prevalence of what he called “men without chests.” By this he meant people — he was thinking especially of intellectuals — who lack neither intellect nor appetite, but that “spirited element” that mediates between them. The “tragi-comedy of our situation,” he wrote, is that “we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible…We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise.” He might have been speaking of our legislators.

These are some of the many issues lately taken up at RealClearPolicy. Below you will find just a few highlights.

— M. Anthony Mills, editor | RealClearPolicy


Congress Is Broken, But Don’t Blame Polarization. Philip A. Wallach & James Wallner offer an alternative explanation for congressional dysfunction. 

Change House Rules to Fix Our Broken Congress. The bipartisan group No Labels outlines a plan to address dysfunction on Capitol Hill. 

How Governors Can Give All Students “Freshman Year for Free.” Jeb Bush & Steve Klinsky explain how states can use online tools to help defray tuition costs.

Provocateurs on Campus Distract From Real Free Speech Problems. Frederick M. Hess & Sofia Gallo urge conservative students not to invite to campus controversial speakers whose primary function is to rattle progressives.

Medicaid Saved My Life. Kristen Arant urges Kentucky’s governor to reconsider new Medicaid work requirements. 

Masterpiece Cakeshop: A Precursor of Battles to Come. In RealClearReligion, Zachary T. Reynolds asserts that the Supreme Court passed on the chance to provide broad and enduring protection for religious freedom.

Climate Change Lawsuit Sets Dangerous Precedent. In RealClearEnergy, Tristan R. Brown argues that a suit brought by coastal cities in California against major oil and gas companies could open the door to frivolous legal action across the industry. 

Manufacturing Talent: The Future of Apprenticeships. In RealClearEducation, Collin Gutman and Eric Seleznow make a case for on-the-job apprenticeships to help solve the skills gap.

Cancer Prevention Is a Children’s Health Issue. In RealClearHealth, Ronald A. DePinho writes that combating cancer starts with a focus on prevention at an early age. 

Philanthropy Against Democracy. In RealClearBooks, Michael E. Hartmann reviews a new biography of social scientist Hans Speier. 

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