Congressional Clout

Robert G. Kaiser has an interesting piece in the Outlook section of today’s WaPo arguing that a realignment has taken place in the American political system.

In fundamental ways that have gone largely unrecognized, Congress has become less vigilant, less proud and protective of its own prerogatives, and less important to the conduct of American government than at any time in decades. “Congress has abdicated much of its responsibility,” Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel said in a recent conversation. “It could become an adjunct to the executive branch.”


Throughout American history, the status and influence of the three branches of government, and particularly of the executive branch and Congress, have risen and fallen like great historical tides. For long periods, most dramatically in the last third of the 19th century, Congress was dominant. Arguably this was also true in the last quarter of the 20th century, after Congress brought an end to the Vietnam War and forced Richard M. Nixon from office. Even in the ’90s, Congress played a key role in replacing Reagan-era budget deficits with the large surpluses George W. Bush inherited when he became president in 2001.

But Congress’s influence has waned in the past few years, perhaps since the unpopular and unsuccessful effort to remove Bill Clinton from office in 1998-99. Though it occasionally resists an executive-branch proposal, Congress today rarely initiates its own policies. Few members speak up for the institutional interests of Congress. “The idea that they have an independent institutional responsibility, that the institution itself is bigger than the individuals or the parties, doesn’t occur to the bulk of [members] for a nanosecond,” said an exasperated Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a longtime student of Congress.


Partly this is the consequence of one-party government. Now that Republicans control the White House, the House and Senate for the first time in half a century — for the first time since the modern, conservative Republican Party assumed its modern personality in the 1980s — congressional Republicans behave like players on a football team, said Mickey Edwards, a member of the House Republican leadership until he lost his Oklahoma seat in a 1992 primary. Edwards now teaches at Princeton. “George W. is the quarterback, and you go with your team,” he said. Because the Republicans enjoy such small majorities, team discipline is all the fiercer.


But the decline of Congress reflects more than temporary political alignments or partisan tactics. The very nature of the institution has changed, affecting who serves, how members are chosen, what their jobs consist of, how both congressional oversight and the legislative process work, and more. This changing anthropology is freely acknowledged by members of the House and Senate from both parties.

Work habits have changed. The House’s mostly-not-working schedule this year is an exaggerated version of what has actually become normal. Once the politicians elected to the House and Senate stayed in Washington for months at a time, but in the era of the jet plane, many members are in this city just two nights a week — Tuesday and Wednesday. In the House, Wednesday is often the only full work day of the week.

I don’t doubt that much of this is true, although I believe it’s exaggerated. Presidents have dominated the system since FDR asserted bold new powers for the office in fighting first the Great Depression and then World War II. The quick follow-on of the Cold War, which meant a permanent wartime footing with the dominance for the commander-in-chief that implies meant that presidents dominated for a period of over half a century.

There was an apparent resurgence of Congressional power after the 1994 midterm elections brought Newt Gingrich and company to power, but it was apparently temporary. In our fast paced, 24-hour media world, a legislature is necessarily at a huge disadvantage. There is no one star figure to focus upon and the plodding, give-and-take style that characterizes legislation appears antiquated. Indeed, over the decades, most of the tasks delegated to Congress in the Constitution have been abrogated to the executive bureaucracy, further increasing the power of presidents vis-a-vis the Congress.

The old saying is that “the president proposes and Congress disposes.” It is more-or-less true. Congress, and particularly the Senate, mainly serve as a checking mechanism to slow down or derail presidential action. There’s relatively little that Congress can do without a presidential signature but most of what a president wants to accomplish requires congressional action and funding. The denial of those gives the legislature substantial power.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Paul says:

    Part of Clinton’s “MO” was to have a “program of the week.”

    Every week he gave a (campain) speech calling on Congress to pass one bill or another. To me, that always diminished the Congress to approving or disagreeing with the executive. After Congress rubber stamped his first tax increase with little debate it hardly seemed important to me. Obviously, the Prez held the ball.

    Even after 1994 I always thought the people put Newt and company in power to stop the healthcare debacle not because Congress was important.

    Certainly, Kaiser’s last point about jet transportation having a profound impact is true.