Commentary Magazine

Is Congress Obsolete?

On entering the House of Representatives at Washington one is struck with the vulgar demeanor of that great assembly. The eye frequently does not discover a man of celebrity within its walls. Its members are almost all obscure individuals, whose names present no associations to the mind; they are mostly village lawyers, men in trade, or even persons belonging to the lower classes of society. In a country in which education is very general, it is said that the representatives of the people do not always know how to write correctly.

Alexis de Tocqueville,
Democracy in America.

It is comforting to know that some things never change, or at least not very much. One can still drop into that sprawling chamber where the people's representatives meet in solemn session and wonder how anything of the slightest importance could possibly happen there. A handful of men in baggy suits can be seen in various postures of repose—a few reading newspapers, another picking his nose, one sound asleep—while from somewhere in a sea of mahogany desks a voice rises in droning tribute to the milk-weed pod or the orthodontist. Even high-school civics teachers know better than to allow their wards to linger in the House gallery on spring vacation trips to the capital. Lest they all turn into cynics, they are hustled off after a few minutes to see the stuffed Indians at the Smithsonian.

But if de Tocqueville was right, we have to remember that the public spectacle of the lower chamber has always been mostly for show and a few laughs. The real business, then as now, goes on behind the scenes, in the committee rooms where the feudal barons of the legislative process dispose of the public business at their private discretion. As Woodrow Wilson wrote during his professorial days: “The House sits not for serious discussion, but to sanction the conclusions of its committees as rapidly as possible.” If the ratification ceremony has little drama and even less debate, nobody seems to mind very much. To expect rapier wit and probing cross-questioning on the floor of the House is to ask of that august body a quality which it does not consider to be a virtue. In the rich heritage of custom the House holds dear, there is little room for question-askers or boat-rockers. Was it not, after all, the late Sam Rayburn, venerated by friend and foe alike as the living incarnation of everything that is most honorable in the House, who summed up the creed governing the institution over which he presided for so many years in the immortal words: “To get along, go along”?

Going along has always been to the House what economic determinism is to Marxists or predestination to Calvinists: an article of faith and a philosophy of life. Those who vote prudently when the chips are down and don't ask too many questions are drawn into the fold and given the sacraments—assignment to a powerful committee, a new federal highway through their district, speedy action on a private bill for an influential constituent. The few others, who for reasons of temperament or conscience have a hard time going along, find the role of a legislator a mine-field of bad intentions. As Senator Paul Douglas, a pioneer of the lonesome road himself, reminded a would-be rebel: “The legislation you favor will not go through. The dam your constituents want will not be built. The river improvements your constituents want will not be built.”

Yet a few malcontents invariably appear in the House who ignore Sam Rayburn's advice. Among the most poignant are the idealists who think that all issues are decided on moral principle and resolved by the logic of debate. In his collection of round-table discussions, The Congressman—His Work As He Sees It,1 one of a number of recent books on the House, Charles Clapp quotes such a disappointed idealist as saying: “I came here thinking this was for real, that this was the only parliament where democratic processes were at work. That is a myth, I find. You can't stand on the floor and inform people; they don't want to listen. If anybody thinks he is going to come down here and legislate he is crazy. When I first arrived and looked around the Capitol, the White House and the Washington Monument, I had a lump in my throat and I felt pretty humble about being part of this great scene. But now all I see is skullduggery and shenanigans.”

There speaks a man who thought he was going to the House of Commons and discovered himself in the House of Representatives, an organization whose leaders have no desire to be informed on the floor by their junior fellows, nor any intention of letting them legislate. While newcomers often complain bitterly about the five-minute limitation on debate, they gradually come to realize that it is not so much a tyranny imposed by the leadership as a handy device for dispensing with the irrelevant—that is, a debate that would not make the slightest difference in the way members cast their votes. With the horse-trading all wound up before the bill ever reaches the floor, the only thing a debate could accomplish would be to tell the voters what was being done to them in the name of their best interests. But since the House does not consider the enlightenment of the electorate to be one of its primary functions, most Congressmen are ardent supporters of the five-minute gag on debate. No temple of rhetoric, the House is a cozy, if slightly seedy, Masonic lodge where the boys swap yarns, the young Turks let off a little harmless steam, and the elders of the community watch over the foolproof system they have developed for keeping things nice and tidy.

One of the most remarkable features of this system is a process whereby speeches are presented but never heard, and where debate often comes only after the vote has been taken. This is accomplished by the device known as the Congressional Record, an ingenious publication which offers Congressmen, through their privilege to “revise and extend” remarks, the chance to create the past and go on record ex post facto—to be off pinching heifers in Ogalala during a crucial vote and yet break into print with an impassioned speech that gives every appearance of having been delivered in the heat of debate. The fact that this practice provides a deceptive official record which makes it impossible for the courts to determine legislative intent hardly detracts from its self-evident virtues. How useful it is to be in two places at once, to say one thing on the floor and another for the record, to decide one's position after the issue is settled. And how convenient it is for the image-conscious Congressman to have a publication into which he can insert his own public-relations material, or that of a favored pressure group, and then get it distributed at no expense (except the taxpayers') to the voters of his district by means of his Congressional mailing frank. Thus, without recourse to the tedious and time-consuming method of floor debate, the members of Congress are nevertheless able to fulfill their obligation to instruct the electorate on vital issues of public policy.


To be sure, Congressmen, like everyone else, are subject to persuasion. It is just that the real persuaders are not those who deliver fervent addresses, nor even the President and his various arm-twisting minions, but the handful of venerable figures in the House cat-bird seat: the Speaker, the minority leader, the chairmen of the half-dozen key committees. Theirs are the hands that guide the strange, and sometimes incomprehensible, workings of the House, that hold out rewards and exact punishments, that allow certain bills to be voted upon and consign others to the limbo of the forgotten. These are the men who decide on the assignment of their colleagues to the legislative committees—an act filled with all the darkness and much of the ceremony of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Congressman Bob Wilson, for example, whose political career is mightily helped by a steady flow of defense contracts into his California constituency, told Clapp that he was not exactly sure why he was put on the Armed Services committee, although “one factor of great significance” must have been “that my district has many military installations in it and thus is a logical one to be represented on the committee.” Another Congressman, benefiting from Sam Rayburn's dictum that the new Democrats on the Education and Labor committee must first be cleared by the AFL-CIO, found that his assignment was made “when some labor lobbyists came to me and asked whether I would go on if they could get me on. They went ahead and got me on. I neither asked for it nor lifted a finger for it.”

As far as the individual Congressman is concerned, the most awesome seat of power in the House has been the Appropriations committee. “For a member of the House to fight this committee,” writes Neil MacNeil in his long and perhaps overly loving account of House folklore, Forge of Democracy,2 “even in the cause of the President, was to risk dreadful consequences to his own political well-being, for this committee had power over all the federal spending in every Representative's home district. . . . This power over the political lives of the other Representatives gave the committee almost unlimited influence over government spending. Rarely were the committee's bills ever seriously challenged by the House itself. By the 1960's it was not deemed remarkable that the House adopted appropriations of as much as $40 billion without a single amendment being offered on the House floor or a single voiced dissent.” It takes either a very brave or a very foolish man to oppose such monolithic authority.

If the Appropriations committee has the key to the public purse and the Congressman's heart, another House institution, the Rules committee, manages to exercise veto power over legislation without having any substantive authority at all. Theoretically empowered only to decide the order in which bills approved by other committees shall be sent to the floor for consideration, it has in reality established itself as the moral overseer of legislation, deciding not merely when the House shall consider bills but whether it should be allowed to consider them at all. An early chairman of this committee was not speaking through his hat when he said, “In me reposes absolute obstructive powers.” Similarly, in 1960 the venerable current chairman, Judge Howard Smith, told two members of his committee who were seeking the release of several key bills: “The only legislation I will agree to consider is the minimum-wage bill. You can tell your liberal friends that they will get that—or nothing. If you try to bring up anything else, I'll adjourn the meeting.”

Crafty parliamentarian that he is, Judge Smith has adjourned a good many meetings, with the result that he has usually been able to block the bills he didn't like and speed through the ones he admired—such as the Communist control act that bears his name. It is a favorite pastime among liberals to fulminate against the Judge and curse him for having a black heart. Yet the Rules committee is the House's creation, not his, and it perfectly reflects the political ethos which dominates that institution. Who would vote to remove Judge Smith from the chairmanship of “his” committee—a position which he acquired and maintains by virtue of having been returned to Congress for sixteen consecutive terms—when to do so would be a direct blow to the seniority system from which every Congressman can expect to benefit? Even Sam Rayburn, cunning fox that he was, was unable to pry key administration bills loose from the Rules committee; nor was he able to purge William Colmer from his second-ranking position on it despite the fact that Colmer, a Mississippi Democrat, actively campaigned against Kennedy in the 1960 election.


To a foreign observer there must have been something pathetic, if not totally mystifying, in the late President's complaint that much of his program would have been approved had the Rules committee allowed his bills to come to a vote in the House. After all, the committee had a two-thirds Democratic majority, was headed by a member of the President's own party, and was supposedly acting as an agent of a Democratic-controlled House. But as James MacGregor Burns has told us in his admirable study, Deadlock of Democracy, there are two Democratic parties, one controlled by some ninety Congressmen elected by two million voters, and another (when the Democrats are in power) headed by the President and making its appeal to sixty million voters. The Congressional Democrats, with Judge Smith as their rock and Adam Smith as their prophet, view themselves as defenders of the Republic against its wild-eyed enemies “downtown” in the White House and the government agencies. And in this crusade they have found natural allies in Republicans like Charles Halleck, the pugnacious minority leader, who sees the Rules committee as a “roadblock to unwise, ill-timed, spendthrift, socialistic measures.”

Those critics who are trying to save the House from itself and pump some blood back into its congealed arteries naturally seize upon the Rules committee as the logical place to begin. James Robinson, a young political scientist who has examined the various possibilities for reform in his scholarly study, The House Rules Committee,3 concludes that the most radical solution would also be the most logical: do away with the damned thing altogether and let the majority party leadership determine which committee-approved bills should be considered by the House and in what order. Noting that the Senate sets its agenda by a procedure of unanimous consent agreements, Robinson argues cogently that “if a group of 100 men can agree unanimously on its legislative program, 400 men can surely operate by majority vote.” The fact, however, is that both the leadership and the majority of the House seem quite content with the conduct of the Rules committee and have consistently refrained from any serious attempt to discipline it. It is too handy as a graveyard for legislation that the majority does not want, but dares not oppose openly.

But then has not Congress always looked upon the non-passage of bills as a function at least as important as their passage? As Robert Bendiner says in Obstacle Course on Capitol Hill,4 his informative and witty study of the non-legislative process at work: “A United States Congressman has two principal functions: to make laws and to keep laws from being made. . . . Indeed, if that government is best that governs least, then Congress is designed, by rule and tradition, to be one of the most perfect instruments of government ever devised.” Following various bills for federal aid to education on their long and tortuous path to extinction, Bendiner delves into the labyrinth of Congressional obstructionism as it has been refined over the years by the best parliamentary minds in the business. The result is a revealing insight into the non-workings of our legislative system, and a fascinating account of how an intelligent minority has been able to impose its will on a disorganized majority.

Considering all the hurdles and pits that Congress has placed in the path of legislation, it is less remarkable that the system performs so badly than that, like the chess-playing dog, it performs so well. One would be hard-pressed to think of any other functioning democracy where the chief executive could not even persuade the legislature to consider, let alone pass, one-fifth of the bills he sent to it. Yet somehow or other the system creaks on, the absolutely vital measures get passed in one form or another, while the controversial ones gather dust until there is sufficient popular demand to force them to a vote—or until the Supreme Court does Congress's work for it. Which is no ground for complacency, but none for hysteria either. Looking back on some of the legislation that has been whooped through the House—such as the perennial wiretap bills, the Smith Act, or the 1950 resolution to cut off Marshall Plan aid to England until the British Parliament ended the partition of Ireland—one might have second thoughts about the desirability of speedy Congressional action.

Perhaps, in any case, it is only the political scientists who take Congress's legislative role seriously. If forced to express an opinion, most Congressmen would probably not place legislating very high on their list of public duties. Faithful servant of the people, the average member of the House takes greater pride in his job of representation. He delights in considering himself a liaison between his constituents and the federal government, serving as a conduit for baffled inquiries about overdue social security checks, veterans' benefits, and draft deferments. The size of the country and the impersonality of the bureaucracy make this function important, although only in the United States is it considered to be the main job of the nation's legislators. While he perpetually grumbles about the time it consumes, the Congressman enjoys playing this role—even to the point of acting as a travel agent for his constituents, reserving hotel rooms for them, and finding them choice seats for the selection of Miss Cherry Blossom. It all gives him a sense of service and it forges ties with the voters that come in handy every second November.

Bendiner, along with a good many other critics of a moribund Congress, believes that this overly tight and narrow relationship between the Representative and his constituents is responsible for the House's failure to educate the public: that is to say, the Congressman doesn't pass the hard truth on to the voters either because he is too busy performing his liaison functions or because he is afraid that they won't re-elect him if he provides unpleasant information. “If,” Bendiner writes, “there is any hope of making Congress primarily the nationally deliberative body that it might be and only secondarily the assembly of sectional and provincial representatives that to some extent it must be, the hope lies, I think, in the direction of making its members somewhat freer than they are of local whim and sentiment.” To this end he suggests a series of modest, if unlikely, reforms—such as lengthening the term of office and limiting the number of consecutive terms, letting candidates run from whatever district they please regardless of residence, setting up a quasi-judicial agency to relieve Congressmen of the burden of bills for the relief of individual constituents, and reducing the errand-boy role of Congressmen by establishing an office on the Swedish model to serve as an intermediary between citizen and bureaucracy.


Reasonable enough in themselves, these suggested reforms might make Congressmen more independent, but would they also make them wiser—or readier to vote for the legislation so dear to the hearts of the liberals? The answer, I should think, is no. The fearsome old curmudgeons who bottle up medicare, federal aid to education, and home rule for the District of Columbia are not those Congressmen chained to “local whim and sentiment,” but precisely the ones who can afford to ignore their constituents because they come from one-party districts and are as firmly entrenched in office as is navy bean soup in the House cafeteria. Of the 435 seats in the House, only 100 at most can be called marginal in any sense of the word, and in recent elections less than one incumbent in ten has been denied another term. John McMillan is not being cowed by the voters of South Carolina when, as chairman of the House District committee, he decides that his fellow representatives shall not be allowed to vote on home rule for the nation's capital, despite the fact that three successive Presidents have asked for it, and the Senate has five times passed bills which would authorize it. Nor does Judge Howard Smith tremble under the judgment of the central Virginia mountaineers and farmers who have kept him in Congress since 1931; he is all-powerful within his realm because he is an absolutely free agent enjoying autocratic authority under the archaic rules that govern the House in the conduct of its own affairs.

A good many liberals imagine that making every Representative as independent as these Southern gentlemen—or their counterparts in the one-party Republican districts of the Middle West—would bring about a flow of progressive legislation. More likely, however, it would slow such legislation up, since it is precisely the Congressmen from marginal districts who are most receptive to the needs of a changing society. The burden these legislators operate under does not come from the narrow prejudices of their district—a civics-class myth it is time we disposed of—but from a procedural system that prevents a numerical majority from imposing its will upon an entrenched minority. To free Representatives from the pressure of their constituents would in no way threaten the power of the oligarchs who have manipulated the rules of the House to their own purposes, and are responsible to no one but themselves. A more effective remedy, therefore, would lie in freeing Congress from its own procedural prison. Not that this would necessarily bring Congress wisdom, but it could at least help it to function once again.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish to deny that the Representative is a man subject to intense local pressures—pressures which he cannot ignore without sacrificing his political life. He may find these pressures narrow and ignorant, he may even defy them if he thinks he can, but he dare not cut too many bridges of support or he will soon find himself with nowhere to turn and his career in Washington collapsing under him. This is one of the reasons why Congressmen feel it essential to reply to every letter that comes into their office, no matter how undeserving or unnecessary of response. Those from marginal districts where two-party politics is a reality live under the constant terror of offending a single voter. Only an iconoclast like Stephen Young has the courage to reply to crackpots: “Dear Sir, Some damned fool sent me a stupid letter and signed your name to it.” But then Stephen Young is not only a free spirit and a man of exquisite sense, he is also a Senator; and Senators can do things that no Congressman would dream of in his wildest flights of fantasy. Blessed with a six-year term and supported by the assumption that voters have short memories, Senators can even court temporary unpopularity by favoring the needs of the nation over the feelings of their constituents. To be sure, even a Senator has to keep the fences mended at home, and never for a minute can he forget that he is an elected official with his state's interests to represent, but at least he has more leeway than his colleagues in the House of Representatives.

The Representative, unless he is permanently entrenched in office by a one-party constituency, takes a national view of public affairs only at his own peril. As D. W. Brogan, has pointed out: “An American Congressman who, for the best of reasons, offends local pressure groups, or by not talking for Buncombe, wastes his time on mere national issues of the first order, may be out—and out forever. The history of Congress is full of martyrs to the general welfare, but any given Congress is full of men who have had more sense than to prefer the general welfare to the local interest.” Thus, Congressmen from marginal districts feel that they must work both sides of the political fence if they are to be re-elected. This is not always as easy as it sounds, particularly where the Congressman feels strongly about social issues. Speaking for a frustrated minority, one liberal told MacNeil of his disappointment when the state legislature failed to redraw his district; “I could have been a statesman if they had cut off a few of those conservatives. Now I'll have to continue going this way and that way, back and forth. I'm a cracker-ass Congressman—and I could have been a statesman.” Perhaps he could have been, but he was in the wrong place, for only those who do not have to worry about being re-elected every two years can afford to be Burkeans.


This, of course, is supposed to be one of the virtues of the House: because Representatives are constantly running for re-election, the House, it is said, more accurately reflects the national will than the Senate. But here we come upon a paradox, for is it not often the case that the Congressman trails behind public opinion, faithfully waving the banner of last year's slogan? The gap between that vast amorphous entity known as The Country and the incestuous little world of Washington has not developed—as most Congressmen like to think—mainly because of the electorate's backwardness. It is a result of the isolation and caution of legislators who are so enmeshed in Congressional gamesmanship that they no longer have any clear idea of what the voters are thinking—and in some cases, they have even ceased to care. Instead of legislating, Congress holds hearings; instead of educating the voters, it bemoans their ignorance; instead of offering leadership, it complains that it is not the President; and instead of drafting its own bills, it merely acts as a receptacle for legislation drawn up by the White House and the federal agencies.

Reflecting on the ways of the House, an institution that fills him with alternating mirth and consternation, Murray Kempton writes: “It is argued that the House of Representatives has damaged the country by its persistence in negation. But the real point is that this habit has damaged the House of Representatives more than it has anything else. Negation, long indulged, renders any institution impotent. The House can no longer offer any alternative to Executive discretion on matters truly critical; its attitude has, in fact, turned government into a series of private compacts to do what has to be done without admitting that it is being done. And what should be serious debate ends as only a saber dance. The Congress is content with gestures; it has surrendered to the President what power there is for substantial action.”

In the paralysis of its procedures and the negativism of its philosophy, the Senate has been just as irresponsible as the House—and with even less reason, since it cannot fall back on the excuse that a two-year term somehow ties its hands. Together the two chambers form a poignant diptych of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, joined in impotent wedlock by the fetters of their own making. As a result, the role of the Congress in the American system of government has become basically one of obstruction and harassment. It can block administration bills which have overwhelming public support, such as medicare or federal aid to education, but it is unable to offer any constructive alternatives of its own. It can slash the foreign aid bill to ribbons and hamper the conduct of foreign policy by cutting off aid to countries whose leaders it doesn't like, while shunting off the consequences of its irresponsibility to a frustrated Executive branch. It can annoy the administration, of whatever party, by investigations designed more to embarrass public officials than to enlighten the public, and by indiscriminate hacking at the budgets of administrative agencies that incur the displeasure of one of the Congressional oligarchs. It can drive Cabinet officials to distraction by forcing them to make perpetual appearances before its various committees in hearings which often seem designed more to satisfy Congressional vanity than to provide information. In the face of this collapse of legislative responsibility, even Walter Lippmann, a man not given to dramatic generalizations, has found “reason to wonder whether the Congressional system as it now operates is not a grave danger to the Republic.”

What is most alarming about the inability of the Congress to legislate is that it may lead to a breakdown of our peculiarly successful, but not necessarily permanent, democratic system. The checks and balances written into the Constitution are the very fibre of American democracy, and if they are disturbed over too long a period, the system itself must suffer. A self-reliant and responsible legislature is, after all, an anomaly in the world, not a commonplace. For all its sense of drama and lofty standards of debate, the French parliament was so totally incapable of coping with its duties and had fallen to such a level of public contempt that its demise was greeted with indifference or delight. The American Congress, too, could become a purely ceremonial body, providing country lawyers with prestigious titles to cap their careers, and offering a source of harmless entertainment for a cynical public.

This is certainly one way of resolving the Congressional impasse, but it is one over which liberals should contain their enthusiasm. It is only relatively recently that liberals have found such virtue in a strong-arm executive and a politically motivated Supreme Court—institutions which were both looked upon with considerable suspicion when they were manned by incumbents of different political hue. We have had reactionary Courts and right-wing Presidents before, and we are likely to have them again. We have also had a Congress—although not recently—which took its responsibilities seriously and which was a “great assembly” of the people rather than a museum of stuffed platitudes. Unless that once “great assembly” is put into working order again, we are likely to find ourselves with something even worse—which is no effective assembly at all.


1 The Brookings Institution, 438 pp., $6.00.

2 David McKay Co., 496 pp., $6.95.

3 Bobbs-Merrill, 127 pp., $5.00.

4 McGraw-Hill, 231 pp., $4.95.

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