Congress could be even worse — Norms of cooperation are alive and (relatively) well

And new norms are making Capitol Hill a better place to work

Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee and Republican Andy Biggs exchange fist-bumps before the start of a Feb. 23 hearing. Today’s Congress is far more cooperative than appearances suggest, and that’s in no small part because of its norms, Alexander writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee and Republican Andy Biggs exchange fist-bumps before the start of a Feb. 23 hearing. Today’s Congress is far more cooperative than appearances suggest, and that’s in no small part because of its norms, Alexander writes. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 1, 2021 at 9:00am

When we think of the Congress of today, we’re not likely to think of former Speaker Sam Rayburn’s famous adage, “Go along to get along.” In today’s Congress, members denounce their opponents for “bulls---” during floor debate,use procedural moves to hamstring legislative business, make trouble for their party leadership and regularly assail one another on the campaign, cable TV and social media. If anything, the sentiment that seems to define Congress today is more like “Neither go along nor get along.”

But the fact is, it’s not as bad as it seems. Congress of today is far more cooperative than appearances suggest. And this is in no small part because of norms, the informal rules and ideas members hold about what is appropriate. 

Political scientists of the past spoke of the “folkways” of Congress — norms such as courtesy and reciprocity — that not only helped the institution work, but that also signaled a general attitude among lawmakers that cooperation is part of their identities as members of Congress.

Contrary to headline-grabbing displays of discord, in the Congress of today, older norms of cooperation are alive and relatively well. In my book, “A Social Theory of Congress: Legislative Norms in the Twenty-First Century,” evidence gathered on the Hill and from current and former members and staff tells a story of a Congress where norms of cooperation continue to flourish. 

The courtesy norm, for instance, is widely upheld in the modern Congress. In survey data, 8 in 10 respondents believe it is appropriate to maintain friendly relations with members of the opposite party and to reach bipartisan compromise on legislation. 

On the floors of the House and Senate, breaches of courtesy are exceedingly rare: Instances of name-calling are exceptions that prove the norm. The apprenticeship norm in the Senate, under which new members learn the institutional ropes before taking initiative, has been thought to be in decline. But rituals such as waiting to deliver maiden speeches are as strong today as they have been for decades. 

What this means is that members of Congress actually cooperate and get along much better than hyperpartisanship and political rancor suggest. As one Senate staffer put it to me, “Members are really nice to each other, despite what you might see on TV.” 

But norms are changing. Unlike the Congress of the past, today norms of cooperation exist alongside norms of conflict. Members believe it is appropriate to engage in obstructionist behavior, and nonconformity and even partisanship itself are norms of the modern Congress. Members now see it as a norm to use the rules to obstruct routine legislative business. They may even engage in acts of extreme disruption, such as the 2016 Democratic sit-in on the House floor over gun control or the Republican storming of a Democratic-led House impeachment hearing in 2019. 

Partisanship is typically thought of in terms of ideological disagreement or strategic competition for control of Congress. But partisanship is also a norm — members oppose the other party because of their identities as partisan warriors.

Other new norms, reflective of changes in American society, are making Congress a better place to work. Sobriety is now a norm on Capitol Hill. Gone are the drunken days such as when Sen. Ted Kennedy would tell members, “The lantern is lit,” which meant to join him in his office to hash out legislative deals over scotch. While Congress is hardly packed with teetotalers, the new norm of sobriety reflects changing attitudes toward alcoholism in American society. This also marks an improvement over the days when female lawmakers were largely excluded from these male-centered drinking sessions. 

Even more promising for gender relations is that sexual propriety is now a norm of the modern Congress. Once hallmarks of the past, sexual harassment and discrimination are more than just frowned upon today: New changes in the rules make sexually inappropriate behavior punishable in the House and Senate. Gender equality still has a long way to go on the Hill, where only 1 in 4 members are women. But the #MeToo movement is having an effect, and progress on gender equity in American society is reflected in the norms of the modern Congress. 

Norms can bring Congress together, but norms can also tear Congress apart. In today’s Congress, norms of conflict are emerging against an older context of cooperation. As this happens, Congress could become more divisive not only for ideological or electoral reasons, but simply because members think conflict is appropriate. 

Whatever the current rancor of American political life, if norms of cooperation fade and those of conflict continue to rise, Congress could become even worse than it already looks.

Brian Alexander is an assistant professor of politics at Washington and Lee University and the author of “A Social Theory of Congress: Legislative Norms in the Twenty-First Century.” He was previously an American Political Science Association congressional fellow in the U.S. Senate.

Alexander will be moderating a panel discussion, “Congressional Norms in an Era of Conflict,” via Zoom on Thursday, April 8, at 12 p.m. Eastern time. The event, which will feature leading congressional scholars and former Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., is open to the public. Zoom link: https://wlu.zoom.us/j/96702716087