Congress is consistently ranked among the least trusted institutions in society. The most recent Gallup surveys put the number of people with a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in Congress in single digits. By comparison, television news doubled that number and banks tripled it. And those are not exactly popular institutions. The biggest reason that Congress scores so low is that people are right. It is awful. If it was a fight they would have stopped it and if it was a TV show, they would have canceled it. But why?
Congress was the darling of our founders. They saw the President as mostly a caretaker and the courts as even less valuable. But these fine legislators from all across our nation would deliberate wisely and choose the best course for our nation. And, though one should not overly romanticize the early years of the Republic, the House and Senate did, as often as not, take the lead in setting national policies and priorities. Men like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Calhoun may have never reached the White House but they likely influenced public policy more than many Presidents.
Of course the national government was quite a bit smaller then. There was very little attempt to micromanage the affairs of the average person. That was usually left to state and local authorities. And, perhaps equally important, the number of members in both the House and Senate was smaller. Prior to the Civil War, there were fewer than 200 US Representatives and less than 70 Senators. In a smaller body, it is much easier to have at least some kind of personal relationship with most every other member. When such informal relationships exist, there need not be as many formal rules in place and more decisions can be made in a truly deliberative fashion rather than by leadership. As the number of members rise, the body tends to become more centralized and bureaucratic. Policies tend to be set by leadership.
And, of course there is the simple fact that drafting laws is a bitch. With the rise of executive branch bureaucracies and judicial review, it has become increasingly more difficult to craft a piece of legislation that actually does what it was intended to do. The devil is, indeed, in the details. And, while a disproportionate number of legislators are attorneys, even they lack the time and expertise required to write a piece of legislation or, often, even to read it. So who writes all these bills? Congressional aides sometimes will do so. But increasingly it is people with a vested interest in the legislation. Yep! Lobbyists are frequently authoring the bills that are introduced by your local Congressman. And they know exactly what they are doing.
And, let’s be honest. It isn’t like most members are eager to be identified strongly with any tough decisions anyway. Let the courts, the President or the executive branch make the controversial decisions. We’ll just speak in platitudes, make sure to provide excellent service to our constituents and raise money for the next campaign. That’s how you build a career in politics; not by taking a stand on an important issue. Increasingly, we see the institution as a waste of time and money. They do nothing meaningful except perpetuate their own careers and line their own pockets. They bicker with one another and pontificate about what great good they seek and the forces of evil they combat across the aisle. It is a soap opera and a bad one at that.
Nature abhors a vacuum and politics abhors a power vacuum. As Congress abdicates its responsibilities, the President and the courts are happy to take the lead. The rise of executive power has created much of the climate of anger and mistrust we see in the country today. As a single man (or woman) becomes more and more powerful, they also become more dangerous. When “your guy” is in charge, it is great. If not, you literally come to fear for your life and well being. The higher the stakes, the further people are willing to go to be sure their side wins. A strong legislature, representing a wide variety of perspectives and looking to build consensus, might be able to moderate that fear but, currently, the Congress serves as a cheerleader for the President if he is of their party and a vicious critic otherwise. No wonder no one loves them. Not only are they failing in their responsibilities but they are making the situation worse.
Of course, as a libertarian, I see an obvious solution. It is not merely the President who has too much power but the government in general. The best way to fix the problem is to get the government out of so many areas of responsibility. If the electorate feels that it must be involved, devolve the authority to state and local levels of government. Even though they are not guaranteed to be more competent or less corrupt, they are at least closer to the people whose lives they regulate. And, when they fail miserably, it is not the entire country that suffers.
Maybe then, a Congress, freed of the need to micromanage the affairs of every American, can return to its original glory. It can once again focus on the big issues that faces our nation. It can begin to produce more statesmen and fewer political hacks. And, no, I’m not holding my breath either.
Thanks for following along with this meandering journey across the landscape of American politics. Like it or not, there is much more to come! Until then, have a great weekend and we’ll see you soon.