by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The dysfunction of the Congress is the core problem confronting the American system of government today. The first branch is first for a reason, and when it fails to do its essential work, nothing else works either.
Worse than that, because the problem of the contemporary Congress is at its heart a kind of underactivity—with members shirking responsibility for hard votes and tough decisions and many choosing instead to spend their time as commentators and political performance artists—it invites an over-activity in the other branches. The hyperactive judiciary and administrative state are direct results of the underactive Congress. And while presidents have always been ambitious, in the absence of a counteracting legislative ambition they now feel invited to go to excess. …
… The nature of this problem, the fact that it requires the legislative branch to recover its proper ambition rather than to be restrained by others, means that only Congress can do anything about it. Yet most members don’t seem interested in changing how the institution works. And even many congressional reformers are focused on the wrong targets.
Most often, proposals for reform are what we might call (following the political scientist Daniel Stid) Wilsonian rather than Madisonian: Implicitly following the advice of Woodrow Wilson, they aim to remake Congress along the model of a European parliament, where the majority party gets its way on everything until the public throws it out, rather than to revive Congress along the lines of the role sketched out for it in James Madison’s Constitution, as an institution built to compel accommodation and compromise among competing factions.
It’s worth paying attention, therefore, when a prominent member of Congress diagnoses this problem and proposes some serious, Madisonian solutions. That’s what Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska does in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal.