Stroll around Washington, D.C., this summer, and you will see hordes of tourists thronging the national Mall. Parents ask their kids, “What’s the role of Congress?” And the teenagers respond, “The purpose of Congress is to pass laws.”
Most people who hear that nowadays feel an urge to laugh. Sure, that’s the purpose of Congress, but that isn’t what Congress actually does. Congress in theory is decisive, but Congress in practice is dysfunctional. If Congress were a student and its handling of the debt-ceiling crisis were an exam, it would get an F, if not expulsion or a referral to the juvenile justice system.
But what if the civics-textbook definition of Congress is wrong? What if Congress is working precisely as designed?
Suppose the purpose of Congress is not to pass laws but to stymie the passage of laws. To be precise, what if the purpose of Congress is to provide us with maximum theater while delivering the least number of new laws? In this alternate universe, we should expect a congressional landscape littered with good initiatives that have gone nowhere. Check. We should expect to see ideologues on both sides deeply disappointed that after all the time and effort they spend campaigning and winning elections, so little of what they want actually happens. Check. We’d expect that the issues on which Congress is decisive are mostly empty and symbolic. Check again.
If the conventional definition of Congress is correct, the only way to explain why Congress accomplishes so little is to assert—as articles, pundits and analyses have done—that the men and women who happen to be in Congress today are particularly incompetent, unpatriotic, and self-serving.
This is the hidden brain at work. Our minds link actions with intentions. When we see dysfunction and inaction, we ascribe them to intentional dysfunction and inaction, rather than to structural factors designed to produce inaction.
The idea that Congress is dysfunctional by design is neither original nor new. Political scientists have made this argument for years, but we have ignored it, perhaps because it interferes with our enjoyment of the theater of Congress. If one were to announce, before the play begins, that precisely nothing will happen by the time the curtain drops, it’s hard to get the audience engaged.
Here’s why Congress is ineffectual by design.
First, most congressional seats are safe seats. Every decade, the two major parties take turns making those seats even safer through gerrymandering. The Republicans, who won big in 2010, now control the lion’s share of state legislatures and governorships. They plan to make safe conservative seats safer and swing seats safely conservative. The net result is that in much of the country, the outcomes of general elections are largely decided in primaries. Whoever wins the Republican primary in a safe Republican district wins the general election. Same goes for safely Democratic seats. The voters who really matter are those who vote in primaries—and the most reliable primary voters are hard-liners.
When it comes time to pass legislation, the hard-line politicians these hard-line voters elect can usually undermine moderates in their own parties, making centrist coalitions unstable. When Americans look at congressional dysfunction with disbelief, they are assuming that members of Congress share their moderate political views. They don’t. Members of Congress aren’t answerable to all their constituents. They are answerable to hard-liners in their party primaries, and these hardliners see any attempt to compromise as “caving in.” Stanford University political scientist David Brady, who runs a fellowship program I’ve attended, once found that the more members of Congress vote with their parties, the less likely they are to be re-elected.
Second, there’s the Senate. Nearly half the Senate represents states whose populations together add up to less than the population of California. One half of Congress, in other words, is designed not as a democracy of the people, but a democracy of the states. If 88 percent of the country wants something to happen but the 42 senators who represent the other 12 percent of the country don’t want it to happen, it doesn’t happen. This has nothing to do with the integrity or competence of members of Congress. It’s how Congress is designed.
Third, neither party stands for the same issues in all 50 states. It is wildly impractical to expect that country club Republicans in Connecticut will see eye-to-eye with evangelical Republicans in Texas on many issues. Republicans from the 50 states might be members of the same party, but apart from a common name and a handful of issues, many don’t share much in common. Expecting Republican or Democratic unity on major issues is like expecting cats to march to the same drummer. Internally divided parties can’t ram initiatives into law.
Finally, unlike in countries where major parties raise money en masse and distribute campaign funds to candidates nationwide, most members of Congress raise their own funds. As a result, they aren’t beholden to their parties in the way legislators in the United Kingdom are, for example. Even if the national Republican or Democratic party had a unified agenda, it’s impossible to impose such agendas on individual members. The parties have limited leverage in getting members of Congress to vote one way or another. Weak, fractured parties, whose members arrive in Congress with their own teams, their own campaign contributors, and their own agendas, have trouble passing laws.
Going back to FDR and even before, presidents have railed against “do-nothing congresses.” The astonishing thing is how effective the argument has been for presidents, given that Congress is designed to be dysfunctional.
What we criticize as dysfunction or ineptitude is really an institution designed with a profoundly conservative vision—that’s conservative with a small C. Congress is designed to stymie change. You can see this as good or bad, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s silly to build a supertanker and then criticize the sailors because the ship doesn’t maneuver like a speedboat.