Governing? What’s That?

There isn't a lot of legislating going on.

There isn’t a whole lot of legislating going on in Washington these days. Such as observation will often be greeted with a quip about the less government does, the better. However, the bottom line truth of it all is that the system requires not only ongoing course corrections, but maintenance.

And yet, as the NYT reported last week, the Congress (and specifically the Senate) is not especially disposed to engaging in its core function:

Seemingly by design, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader and self-proclaimed “grim reaper” of Washington, has turned his chamber into a legislative graveyard, opting instead to devote the Senate floor almost exclusively to confirming conservative judicial nominations and Trump administration appointees.


Barely a dozen roll-call votes have been held this year on bills, amendments and legislation, and around 20 bills have been signed into law since January.

Source: NYT: Tariff Threats Aside, the Senate Is Where Action Goes to Die

The focus for the GOP in the Senate has been judicial nominations:

While nominees churn through the chamber — nearly 50 judicial and executive nominees were confirmed in May — only a few notable pieces of legislation have passed through the Senate in the past six months, and most of those had to pass, such as legislation to reopen parts of the government after a 35-day shutdown and a monthslong delayed disaster relief package. The Senate did pass a bipartisan land conservation package that had been years in the making.

This is noteworthy for a number of reasons, but primarily it shows an attempt (if not an outright success) is dominating the courts because passing legislation is either too hard or not the goal. It is also profoundly ironic (if not straight-up hypocritical) for a party that has longed preached that judges should be neutral umpires calling balls and strikes to now see the courts as the way to shape their policy goals rather than via legislation.

This makes sense in the context of a party that is worried about its lack of majority status in the electorate: exploit institutions like the Senate which is not based on population and use that leverage to influence as heavily as possible the judiciary, with its lifetime appointments.

One has a real sense that the GOP is less interested in proactive government (and this was true prior to the current, divided Congress) than in tax policy and otherwise entrenching key elements of the status quo. Along these lines it is noteworthy that the previous, unified Congress did not attempt comprehensive immigration reform and its actions on Obamacare were about repeal rather than a serious attempt at replacing–all despite a president who said both were top priorities.

At least some members of the GOP caucus would like to see more action:

The tactic, while ideal for frustrating the ambitions of the Democratic majority in the House and furthering a conservative slant on the courts, has begun to irritate even Republicans eager to take votes on items other than procedural rules and nominees, and who have introduced bills addressing bipartisan issues, such as election security and prescription drug pricing, only to see them go nowhere. The landmark Violence Against Women Act remains expired. The Higher Education Act awaits action, as does the annual defense policy bill.

Senator James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, agreed in an interview that “it is more of a challenge” even to “get common agreement on simple things.”

Mr. Kennedy, asked if he still believed that his colleagues in the Senate needed to get off their “ice-cold butts,” offered a correction: “Ice-cold lazy butts,” he said, the exact phrase he used last month to disparage the lack of legislative action.

While there are some “must-pass” stuff coming (such as the debt ceiling and spending bills), I do not expect much of significance.

Senator David Perdue, Republican of Georgia, who also is up for re-election next year, said he points to “Democratic obstructionism” and reminds constituents that there is still hope to come together on a number of priorities, including legislation that would lower the cost of prescription drugs and a bicameral push to counter the country’s affordable housing crisis.

“Divided government is historically when big things happen,” he added. “I’m hopeful.”

That strikes me as incredibly over-optimistic. I will say that there was a time, when the Congress in general was predisposed to governing, that logrolling was common (i.e., various members working together to pass legislation) and was especially necessary in times of divided government. In that past members of both parties would have to work together to give-and-take to get what they wanted because it was the only way to accomplish anything..

The problem is that deepening polarization undercuts deal-making as a general possibility. Worse, however, is that it unclear what it is that the Republicans want bad enough to compromise with the Democrats.

One could envision, for example, a compromise infrastructure bill in a previous era (or even some progress on immigration and border security). At the moment, such things are unthinkable.

This all ties into a long-term concern of mine: the Congress, both House and Senate, do not appropriately, nor accurately, represent the population. Even if we set aside the unique nature of the Senate, the House of Representatives should do a better job of representing the people (a subject I have discussed numerous times–for example, here and here).

It is a problematic combination when institutions are failing at a basic task, like representation, and the party benefiting from skews in the system that redound to it does not want to govern. Or, at least, they eschew the main way our system is supposed to work: via legislation.

At the moment, we have an almost inert legislative branch, save for the second chamber confirming appointees to the judicial branch. We also have an executive branch abusing pre-existing laws (like the International Emergency Economic Powers Act). This is not a good combination. This is a recipe for true federal dysfunction and popular discontent over the medium to long term.

I will note, Congress has been doing a poor job for years on basic functions, such as the budget, so this problem is not one simple of the current administration. Likewise polarization and poor representation are not new. As such, Trump losing office does not solve these deeper issues.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. HankP says:

    Um, the House has passed over a hundred bills that the Senate refuses to take up. How is the House not doing its job?

  2. reid says:

    I thought it was obviously and axiomatically correct that every person should be represented equally to every other person, but I’ve had discussions with people that honestly believe that people in rural areas deserve to be over-represented. Otherwise, in their minds, the “city people” will unfairly dominate the agenda.

  3. Kathy says:

    Is there a bill the House could draft and pass that is:

    1) Very popular with a large majority of the population (ie 65% or higher)
    2) Has enough support on the GOP that a few Representatives and Senators would vote for it
    3) Is opposed by the rest of the GOP in general, and Trump and/or McConnell in particular

    If there is, and I can’t think of any such issue, the House should pass it, and dare McConnell not to even schedule a vote on it. But only if Pelosi, the rest of the Democratic House and Senate leadership, and assorted Democratic and Republican governors, mayors, etc. are willing to keep the pressure up by keeping the issue constantly in the media.

  4. Kathy says:

    BTW, this brings to mind one of Niven’s Laws. I think it goes “Not responsible for advice not taken.” He illustrates this by saying it’s not enough to hear about a diet and even to read the book about it, you actually have to go on the diet in order to lose weight.

    The thing is in today’s politics there are lots of policy ideas which might make things better if implemented, but the legislative gridlock makes it nearly impossible to implement anything not already in the books.

    In a related item, I’ll leave with this nightmare scenario: if a Democrat wins the Presidency in 2020, but the GOP keeps the Senate, what are the odds the Republicans would dare to confirm no single judge at any level, and no SC appointment, until 205 or 2029?

  5. JohnMcC says:

    @reid: I have heard the same from the right-wing side of my family — that there should be some sort of political bonus for ‘conservatives’ because the left makes them feel so bad with all that snobbishness and stuff…. I know it’s ridiculous but that’s what I heard.

    And in reference to the Original Post and the concern about the Congress not being ‘representative’ — the same right-wingers advocate repeal of the 17th Amendment and returning to the appointing of Senators by state legislators. I kid you not.

  6. reid says:

    @JohnMcC: They’re totally okay with whatever benefits them, bottom line.

  7. @HankP: Well, do please note that the Senate gets most of the criticism in the post.

    In general, however, there is a longer term problem with congress. And I am not engaging in bothsiderism, as I do (and did in the post) more criticize the GOP. I also think that there are structural problems that contribute to the situation rather substantially.

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Hmmmm… Let me see, what was it that was accomplished when the GOP controlled the House, the Senate, and the Presidency? Oh yeah, the Great Treasury Robbery of 2017. In other words, the GOP cares about one thing and one thing only. Us plebes can go fuck ourselves.

  9. HankP says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I have to disagree on this. The problem isn’t with Congress, it’s with the electorate. A 50-50 split (or 60-40 for that matter) with vehemently different philosophies on either side is not going to get handled well in any political system, especially one that structurally favors the minority. And if the minority isn’t interested in enforcing norms, let alone the law, there’s just no good way that this situation will play out.

  10. @HankP: I am not absolving the electorate. But it matters very much (especially in what I describe above) that the makeup of the Congress is not representative of the population. It matters a ton.

  11. gVOR08 says:

    In response to Purdue’s hope that big things might happen in a divided government you noted,

    That strikes me as incredibly over-optimistic.

    I think you’re much to kind. Strikes me as a lying rationalization.

    I’ll go back to Hacker and Pierson’s concept of “drift”. People doing exceptionally well under the status quo feel no compulsion to allow change. They’re quite content to shovel buckets of money at McConnell to keep him from doing anything. Hopefully at some point the need of some GOP funders for a little cheddar will lead to breaking the dam.

  12. Gustopher says:

    @Kathy: I am surprised we don’t have a bill with broad bipartisan support to just increase funding to increase beds for opioid addiction rehab.

    All of the underlying issues are complicated and hard to get consensus on, but the one thing we do know is that when people have a problem, there aren’t enough spots to get help — the need outstrips supply. The programs are well understood and reasonably effective, we just need to scale them up to match the problem.

    And it would pay for itself in the long run, getting these addicts back to being productive tax payers.

    Doctors don’t grown on trees, of course, but social workers do. Can we adjust programs to see if we can get similar results for more patients with the same number of doctors? Worth a try at least.

  13. HankP says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Sure, but that’s the way the system was designed. Excess representation for smaller states and a strong tendency against major or rapid change. I agree that it’s a big problem, but there isn’t a big enough majority to change the system specifically because of that tendency against major change. Something really big and bad, like another great depression or a major war will have to happen to motivate enough people to vote.

  14. An Interested Party says:

    I have heard the same from the right-wing side of my family — that there should be some sort of political bonus for ‘conservatives’ because the left makes them feel so bad with all that snobbishness and stuff…. I know it’s ridiculous but that’s what I heard.

    Well, of course, as conservatives are the world’s biggest victims…

    Strikes me as a lying rationalization.

    Yes, like whining about “Democratic obstructionism”…

  15. Kathy says:


    I am surprised we don’t have a bill with broad bipartisan support to just increase funding to increase beds for opioid addiction rehab.

    That’s one thing Democrats should be pushing for. I’m sure many in the GOP would favor that, but the leadership might be loath to spend any money on it. Money is for defense, and fixing Trump’s messes.

  16. @HankP:

    but that’s the way the system was designed

    And that design is flawed and is causing some of our current problems.

    That is my point.

  17. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @An Interested Party: A voice crying out in Red State America from the Letters to the Editor of the Daily News, Longview, WA, June 12, 2019.

    As a political outsider looking in, it seems to me that if the Democrats spent as much time and effort trying to get something productive done in Congress as they are spending trying to oust our elected president, our country would be a lot better off.

    “Yes, like whining about ‘Democratic obstructionism’…” Indeed! (But ya can’t do it without alternative facts.)

  18. reid says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: What a complete idiot. Or Russian troll, hard to say.

  19. Scott F. says:

    Steven, you say:

    This all ties into a long-term concern of mine: the Congress, both House and Senate, do not appropriately, nor accurately, represent the population.

    Can you conceive any possible route to this changing? The very lawmakers who benefit from minority rule would have to pass the laws that might lead to the end of minority rule. Every political incentive is for these lawmakers not pass those laws. They are better served by doing nothing but pack the courts with judges who will support their hold on power through other means like voter suppression and gerrymandering.

  20. @Scott F.: I see no immediate pathway for change.

    I see two possible pathways for longer-term change. One, which in my more pessimistic moments I think is the only way, is major crisis that leads to the breakdown of existing institutions and their eventual replacement.

    A second is more gradual and it starts with getting the general public (or, more accurately, a sizable chunk thereof) to understand a) what the problem is and b) the world provides all kinds of example of how to fix the problem.

    People have got to stop saying (with apologies to HankP), “that’s the way it is designed” as if that is an answer. If a car or airplane has a design flaw, we aren’t content with the response “well, that’s the way it was designed” and we shouldn’t be for government.

    I have seen, only recently, some mass-level discussions of these problems (discussions that were not happening 5 years ago, let along 10+ years ago). That is a start.

    And yes, parties and politicians who benefit from the system will not want to change it. The thing is, Democrats are starting to understand that they are not benefiting, and indeed, are being damaged by the current system. This will create pressure for change.

  21. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @reid: No, just a good citizen of a rural-ish county in Washington State. 94% of the citizens are registered voters and last election 69% voted Republican. They know “who the enemy” is.