James Wallner recently argued in the Library of Law and Liberty that those who criticize the Senate’s gridlock often have a novel understanding of how the Senate is supposed to function. To continue the conversation on legislative theory, we have included Philip Wallach’s article from National Affairs below. He emphasizes the necessity of maintaining a Madisonian Congress in a diverse political community and identifies the dangers a strong executive poses.
Congress is a mess. It seems incapable of passing major legislation; it is divided by bitter animosities, held in almost universal contempt, and without an apparent plan to right itself. So goes the conventional wisdom, and, as of early 2018, it is mostly right.
But saying that Congress is troubled is very different from offering a clear direction for reform. Strikingly few people — including among our elected officials themselves — have a strong sense of what Congress’s institutional identity ought to be, or can say what a functional Congress ought to do in our 21st-century constitutional system. Taking up a long intellectual tradition running back through Woodrow Wilson, many intelligent observers have become convinced that Congress is obsolete, and the best thing it could do is just get out of the way.
Properly understood, however, Congress is no anachronism. The very features that would-be reformers find most exasperating — its messiness, balkiness, and cacophony — are those that render our representative legislature capable, in ways the other branches are not, of maintaining the bonds that hold together our sprawling republic. Critics of Congress are right to think that the legislature is a poor champion of efficient government relative to the executive branch, but they fail to realize the deeper goods and goals that representative government serves, namely promoting provisional coalition-building, generating trust, and creating real political accountability.
Philip Wallach was a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is now a senior fellow at the R Street Institute. He writes on a wide variety of domestic policy topics, including Congress and the administrative state, climate change, the debt ceiling, and marijuana legalization. He is the author of To the Edge: Legality, Legitimacy, and the Responses to the 2008 Financial Crisis (2015). He is an expert on the Clean Power Plan, interbranch relations, legal and political aspects of monetary policy, the Glass-Steagall Act, and regulatory capture.
His writing has been featured in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, National Review, the Hill, and Roll Call, National Affairs, and The New Rambler Review, as well as in scholarly journals including Studies in American Political Development. His current projects include examining the legitimacy challenge faced by America’s administrative state, working out the contours of a Congressional Regulation Office, and examining the possibility of partisan realignment in coming years.
Wallach received a B.A. from the College of Social Studies at Wesleyan University and a Ph.D. in Politics from Princeton University.
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