Recently, I participated in a panel discussion on “The Evolving Congress” cosponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center and National Capital Area Political Science Association. It was based on a book by that title written by a group of experts at the Congressional Research Service on its 100th anniversary. The panel had no problem agreeing that Congress has changed considerably since its inception. But there are still unresolved questions over just how and why it has evolved to what it is today, and what it might be evolving to.
CRS Senior Specialist Walter Oleszek, in his introductory chapter to the volume, offers the best explanation of what has happened and why: “Congress is an institution constantly in flux,” he writes. “The policy and political struggles among the elective units are a permanent fixture of the Nation’s constitutional system that continue to shape the evolution and work of Congress.”
That may seem an easy out, but Oleszek’s chapter charting the fluctuations, alterations and variations in powers, procedures and policies in Congress over time convinces us that neither the most farsighted Framers nor futurists could have predicted the course Congress would take over the last two centuries, let alone where it might end-up a century hence. The possible permutations and combinations of policy challenges, politics and players in the struggles between the branches are too numerous to fit into a neat, predictive equation.
Woodrow Wilson, in “Constitutional Government,” a collection of lectures delivered in 1907, was critical of our constitutional system of separated powers and checks and balances on grounds that, “No living thing can have its organs offset against each other as checks, and live.” He went on to explain, “Government is not a machine, but a living thing, accountable to Darwin, not Newton … modified by its environment, necessitated by its tasks, shaped to its functions by the sheer pressure of life.” Wilson viewed evolution as a steady progression toward higher life forms. For government, “a body of men … with a common task and purpose,” that meant evolving to a more advanced stage of “coordination of the organs of life and action.”
Many would argue Congress today is devolving rather than evolving — declining in importance, power and capabilities. Wilson did not directly speculate on Congress’s future decline, but did observe in his 1907 lectures that “we have grown more inclined to look to the president as the unifying force in our complex system, the leader both of his party and of the nation.” The presidency was already emerging as the fittest survivor, presumably destined to rule over Congress.
Oleszek’s brief history of Congress makes clear that it has alternated between partisan and committee eras. When parties are strong and unified, power is delegated to elected party leaders and party caucuses; and when parties are weak and diverse, power resides with committees and their chairmen. But can we assume that these power shifts are forever cyclical? Or have things changed so much that going back to a strong committee system is no longer possible?
My take is that much depends on what the people want and expect of their government and what power combinations between (and within) Congress and the presidency can best meet those expectations. Some political scientists argue the country has become just as politicized and polarized as Congress. But does that necessarily mean we will always be so riven? Keep in mind also that people have always been highly suspicious of political parties as being too beholden to special interests instead of to the public interest (however that might be defined).
Looking internally at Congress, is it possible that the various organs and procedures that make it possible for party government to flourish are so embedded that it would be impossible to replace them with mechanisms more conducive to committee governance? Put another way, is the modern culture of Congress capable of transformation from a culture of campaigning to a culture of legislating and deliberation? We know that during previous periods of either entrenched committee or party governance these same questions were posed by members frustrated with the system and a press and public equally fed-up with gridlock or partisan excesses. And we got change.
In the final analysis, Congress is neither part of an upwardly evolving socio-biological organism nor of a finely calibrated gizmo subject to orbital mechanics. Its evolution is subject primarily to the vicissitudes of human nature as they operate both internally and externally on the institution. So far, at least, this bold experiment in representative democracy has worked for better and worse and proven to be resilient if not perfectible.
Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.
The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress
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