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Why Can't Congress Solve Hard Problems?

Why Can't Congress Solve Hard Problems?

Saturday, 21 September, 2019 - 07:00

How much of a problem is the loss of congressional capacity?

That question comes up, as Congress returns from its August recess, in a Monkey Cage item from Craig Volden and Alan E. Wiseman that focuses on the collapse of House committees from 1995 on. It’s a solid piece, but as Josh Huder points out, the rise of congressional leadership was probably critical to the passage of major legislation such as the Affordable Care Act. The House was weaker when committees ruled before the reforms that began after the 1958 election; it’s weaker now, after Newt Gingrich concentrated influence in the speaker’s office at the expense of everything else.

Huder also questions whether congressional procedure is ultimately related to solving public-policy problems. He said: “But many put misplaced hope in the committee system, believing it will create the pathways to revolutionary policymaking. That belief lays too much blame on Congress for what is really the fault of the political environment more broadly. Congress cannot fix every political problem.”

In part, I agree. The biggest problem with the current policy-making process isn’t Congress or the presidency; it’s the Republican Party, which has to a shocking extent simply given up on trying to solve problems. The most obvious example is health care: Republicans think the Affordable Care Act is bad policy, yet almost a decade later they still don’t have any real alternative. The same is true in one policy area after another. This wasn’t the case in the 1980s, when Republicans regularly pushed substantial legislation (including, of course, legislation to reduce what government was doing). But since the Gingrich years, and especially over the last decade, they’ve largely become a post-policy party. That has very little to do with the structure of the House and Senate, and I think it matters more – it’s why a unified Republican government in 2017 and 2018 produced so little.

But I also disagree with Huder in part. If the House is better organized – if it’s more powerful – that means the nation can do more. The same with a better organized Senate or White House or federal bureaucracy. A system of separated institutions sharing powers doesn’t produce a zero-sum contest; to the contrary, the more powerful each chamber and institution can become, the more powerful the country is, and the easier it will get to solve difficult problems. The same is true within the House: Strong committees and strong leadership can make for a more powerful institution. The correct answer to leadership vs. committees is both.

To me, that’s the promise of the republic that the Framers designed. It’s what united, at least for a while, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Yes, all the overlapping authorities, the checks and balances, can make it hard to do anything. But multiple veto points are also multiple initiation points. And that brings with it enormous potential for action. The trick is to follow up on Madison and Hamilton, and to keep finding institutional designs that unleash and nourish that potential.


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