Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Why Congress is Broken (And How We Can Fix It)

By Garrison LovelyPublished October 31, 2013

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America believes in a deeply personal political system. Across the country, from newsrooms to dinner tables, individual characteristics of Presidents and Speakers, Representatives and Senators, Republicans and Democrats are attributed to successes or failures in politics. The reality is, the failures of our government to govern are largely caused by institutional obstacles and the politicians that take advantage of these obstacles for political gain.
By Garrison Lovely, Published 10/31/13


America believes in a deeply personal political system.  Across the country, from newsrooms to dinner tables, individual characteristics of Presidents and Speakers, Representatives and Senators, Republicans and Democrats are attributed to successes or failures in politics.  The reality is, the failures of our government to govern are largely caused by institutional obstacles and the politicians that take advantage of these obstacles for political gain.  Any recent political successes have largely occurred despite these obstacles.  Two of the most pervasive obstacles include the Hastert Rule in the House of Representatives and changes to the filibuster in the Senate.  

The Hastert Rule is an informal governing principle observed by Republican Speakers of the House over the past two decades.  A Speaker following the Hastert Rule will not allow a vote on any piece of legislation that does not have support from the majority of the majority.  This essentially prevents bipartisan legislation from passing the House because any bill that gains enough support in today's deeply conservative Republican party to earn a vote is extremely unlikely to gain any Democratic support.  

            Why does this bizarre and obstructive norm exist?  Speakers depend on popular support from their party to maintain their position of power.  This incentivizes a Speaker to simply ignore any legislation that does not have support from the majority of his or her (since this is the Republican party, let's assume his) party.  This incentive, combined with the large degree of discretion and power afforded to the Speaker, led to the Hastert Rule.  

            Why should you care about the obscure internal workings of the House of Representatives?  Because these internal mechanisms have enormous external impacts.  The recent government shutdown occurred and was prolonged by Boehner's observance of the Hastert Rule.  The sane minority of the Republicans in Congress was willing to vote with the Democratic caucus to fund the government.  The Democratic controlled Senate had already passed clean bills to refund the government.  But since most Republicans preferred to continue fighting a law passed over three years ago, Boehner did not allow an up-down vote on the bill.  

            What should be done?  Well, there isn't a very strong case in favor of allocating unchecked, unilateral power to the Speaker of the House.  Removing the Speaker's ability to simply allow or disallow votes on bills based on personal interests would be a big step in the right direction.  

            So what's up with the Senate?  Well, the filibuster used to be an odd, rarely invoked method for individual members of the upper house to postpone or kill pieces of legislation.  It required the Senator to actively speak against the legislation to prolong a vote.  Famous cases of the talking filibuster include Jimmy Stewart's stand against corruption in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Strom Thurmond's 24-hour filibuster opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1957.  

            However, a change in the Senate's rules now allows Senators to issue anonymous holds, effectively indefinitely postponing legislation unless a party can gather â…"” (60 members) of the Senate to vote for cloture, which advances legislation.  This change allows 41 member minorities in the Senate to kill any legislation through these holds.  A return to previous norms of allowing filibusters, but requiring the opposing member to speak would make the Senate more productive and prevent one party from holding up the legislative process despite being in the minority.

            The founders wanted governing to be difficult in the United States, but the gridlock that characterizes modern US politics is the result of perversions in rules and political incentives that counter the interests of the American people.  Fairly simple reform in the way Congress functions could lead to vast gains in productivity.  It is time once again for our government to govern.