If there is one thing upon which people of every political persuasion agree, it is that Congress does not function according to its purpose. Yet, paradoxically, many today also hold the hardline view that political compromise is tantamount to capitulation — and that only the opposing party should do it. Such thinking cascades from congressional leaders' attitudes toward the institution of Congress itself to each party's caucus and constituencies. The Framers' purposefully complex design fundamentally depends upon the assumption that legislators would always seek to achieve political progress on issues and would therefore ultimately work together to overcome differences. That assumption, unfortunately, has in many ways been turned on its head in recent decades by the actions of party leaders in Congress.
Political parties are essential to democratic governance. Their existence makes governing more efficient in myriad ways. But America's system was not conceived with their inevitable development in mind. To the contrary, the system was designed to operate in an environment where most factions would be ephemeral, developing over issues and then dissolving when those issues faded or were somehow resolved. Consequently, the normal incentives that drive parties – as permanent "super-factions" that transcend issues and time — can bring about behaviors by their leaders that actually run counter to the very purpose of the Framers' design, impeding Congress' efficacy as America’s legislative institution and forum for compromise.
These misaligned incentives manifest most conspicuously through the attitude each party's leadership displays toward temporary, issue-based, cross-party legislative majorities that can — and often do — develop in one or both chambers of Congress. Such temporary factions form naturally each term out of the interplay between and among legislators, who reach out to one another to devise solutions to common issues of concern out of sheer pragmatism. Party affiliation plays a diminished role in these interactions; these legislators seek-out one another based upon their common institutional identity. These sorts of legislative majorities seem rare today compared to the party-based majority/minority dynamic to which most people are accustomed. But their formation, from an institutional standpoint, is exactly what the Framers hoped would happen.
On occasion, such majorities succeed in moving forward on major issues, such as the recent bipartisan legislation on criminal justice reform. Most often, however, they present a conundrum in the minds of party leaders: Does the work of this temporary, cross-party faction represent a greater good unto itself, or does the passage of this group's pragmatic legislation represent a threat to the purity of the party's platform and leadership's ability to control the caucus? Leaders usually assess these temporary factions to be the latter — so they seek to quash them. This is rarely done overtly. Rather, leaders suppress the fruits of their cooperation — usually legislation — often by stymying the bill on ideological grounds. Party leaders actively favor the advancement of more dogmatic policy prescriptions, even though they have far less chance of passing.
One example is the 2013 bipartisan immigration bill crafted by the Senate's "Gang of Eight." It passed, and likely had enough bipartisan support in the House, but was staunchly opposed on ideological grounds by a cadre of House Republicans. Speaker Boehner never brought it to a vote, favoring the unity of his caucus over the prudence of the bill. It died. Episodes such as this have real consequences for Congress as an institution and for the national debate on issues. Temporary, issue-based majorities are supposed to form – and act. When this is impeded, the institution ceases to fulfill its primary purpose, and societal divisions are intensified.
Thus, the primary incentives that drive political parties — to control government as a unified block and to self-preserve on the basis of a (somewhat) "pure" ideological platform — do not mesh in these situations with the structural intent of America's legislative design. Instead of embracing the political progress that resulting legislation could produce, leadership actively fosters and maintains gridlock in relation to so many issues that institutional dysfunction develops.
Incentives matter. Congressional leaders attain their lofty positions by methodically ascending the party ranks. Their most ardent constituencies come to depend upon them, and they come to depend upon those same constituencies. Just about everything they do involves battling or confounding the opposition party. The partisan complexion of that climb colors the way they feel they can approach their institutional responsibilities, which oftentimes run headlong into the partisan expectations of the party faithful that keep them in power. They instinctively view virtually all developments through the "prism of party." Their priorities are primarily geared toward utilizing Congress as a mechanism to amplify their party’s power and influence.
That is problematic from an institutional perspective. Instead of leading the House as an institutional body, the Speaker of the House — the whole House — behaves as a partisan leader, seeking to confound the opposition as a bloc at every turn. Likewise, the Senate Majority Leader is seen as the leader of the majority party, and not as a facilitator for what the majority of the Senate is seeking to accomplish together. The caucus comes first; the institutional function of Congress comes second. And, yet, most constituents do not even question the partisan nature of these institutional leaders. They expect it.
In these times of political division and party tribalism, it is prudent to reevaluate exactly what purpose the leadership in each house should serve. Should leaders simply serve their party’s priorities? Or, should they serve the institution more broadly? Should they agitate only for their party's outlook, or should they work to facilitate principled compromises according to the Framers’ design? The nation would benefit immensely from congressional leaders who interpret their responsibilities as being primarily institutional, and only secondarily party-based. Instead of viewing all endeavors through the "prism of party," leaders of each chamber would better serve the nation if they viewed their responsibilities through an "institutional prism."
America's system is not parliamentary. Party leaders have, it seems, taken to viewing it as such. In a parliamentary system, majorities are elected (or formed right after election) to dominate government. That flies in the face of the purpose of the Framers' system. Quick action on big issues is rare, because the system is purposefully designed to be inefficient except when there is national consensus. In truth, channeling partisanship toward compromise solutions from issue to issue is, according to the Framers' design, the most fundamental intended responsibility congressional leaders have. But, as long as the truth of that responsibility is obscured by expectations that result from viewing all events through the "prism of party," Congress' natural function in American society will continue to be hobbled.
Dennis R. Bullock teaches AP US Government & Politics and AP Macroeconomics in Burbank, CA and publishes frequently on national politics. He was a candidate for the California State Assembly 43rdDistrict seat in 2016.