Joseph Postell, a JMC fellow, wrote an essay on the reason for Congress’ ailments in the Claremont Review of Books.
What’s The Matter with Congress?
President James Buchanan is credited with being the first to call the U.S. Senate “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” This designation has been repeated frequently in the years since, almost always by senators themselves. These days the epithet rings hollow, and the senators know it.
Speeches in the Senate are typically given to a room of two or three senators, and no one is listening. When Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) condemned President Trump’s criticism of the press in a dramatic speech on the Senate floor in January, only a few senators bothered to show up. He was, in essence, speaking to the media and not to his colleagues. The Senate’s presiding officers spend more time on their phones than paying attention to the debates, because debate is mostly nonexistent.
Nowadays when senators invoke the ideal of the “world’s greatest deliberative body” they talk about restoring deliberation rather than preserving it. Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and John McCain (R-AZ) have in recent years delivered floor speeches (again, unattended by other senators) on restoring Senate deliberation. Members’ contempt for their own institution is bipartisan. When Democratic Party leaders pleaded with Joe Manchin (D-WV) to run for reelection, he told them simply, “This place sucks.” (He’s running anyway.)
It’s not going any better on the other side of Capitol Hill in the House of Representatives. We are all aware of the periodic “showdowns” over government “shutdowns” over the debt limit or whatever—which have become a common rather than an extraordinary feature of congressional life. The floundering was on full display in Republicans’ attempts last year to reform health care. The legislative process was so secretive in that instance that ordinary citizens could not be expected to understand how the bill to “repeal and replace” Obamacare was amended or debated. Even many House members seemed to be in the dark about what they were actually voting on.
Joseph Postell is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where he teaches courses on American political institutions, American political thought, and administrative law. His research focuses primarily on regulation, administrative law, and the administrative state. He is the editor of two books: Rediscovering Political Economy (with Bradley C.S. Watson) andToward an American Conservatism (with Johnathan O’Neill). He is currently completing a book titled Bureaucracy in America: The Administrative State and American Constitutionalism (under contract). He also contributes frequently to the Liberty Fund’s “Library of Law and Liberty” website on political and legal thought.
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