For more than 200 years, Congress has largely followed the vision of the nation’s founding fathers: to forge compromises on the major issues of the day, to reassert its authority to make war, spend taxpayers’ money, and control the presidency.
Today, that model is practically dead.
When we talk about the dysfunctions of Congress, we usually mean that, despite its immense power, Congress seems paralyzed in the face of the country’s most difficult problems. The paralysis usually stems from disagreements between the two parties and is exacerbated by the unusual structure of the US Congress, which allows one party to control the House of Representatives while the other party controls (or at least vetoes) the Senate.
Congress has never been as unpopular as it has been in recent years. Gallup numbers, for example, show that public support for Congress is weaker than it’s been since a reputable research firm began asking the question.
The Founding Fathers created a system in which the various branches of government served to monitor one another. However, they assumed that the main competition in government would be between these branches. They did not believe that the United States’ political system should or should have political parties (although they formed several soon after the system’s creation). Today’s system, in which the main competitors are organized political parties fighting in different spheres of power, is quite far from the system they envisioned.
But even the casual observer in Washington sees wide disparities in the congressional outcomes. Sometimes the efficiency of Congress is amazing. For example, the Great Society Congress, chaired by Lyndon Johnson, passed landmark legislation on healthcare, the environment, civil rights, transportation, and education (to name a few). Sometimes there is an impasse, as in 1992 when Congress scrambled to lower the capital gains tax and reform lobbying, campaign finance, banking, parental leave, and labor laws.
What is responsible for these unequal results? Why is Congress sometimes brilliantly successful and sometimes deadlocked? Prepare to be shocked at the answer … we no longer have an “official” Congress. What we have is a Political Talk Show. Now you know.