Yes, Healthy Congressional Politics are Transactional…and More

Chairman Pat Harrison of the Senate finance committee outlines congressional drive for tax reduction. Source: Library of Congress.

Chairman Pat Harrison of the Senate finance committee outlines congressional drive for tax reduction on November 16, 1937. Source: Library of Congress.

Jonathan Rauch has written both an impish and important report for the Brookings Institution,Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money and Back-room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy (2015).

Rauch, like me and many other observers of Congress, is dismayed by its dysfunction. The past two decades have seen multiple government shutdowns. Attempts to reach “grand bargains” on deficit reduction, immigration and other major national issues have failed. Internecine warfare became a regular feature of the national legislature, with members trashing one another publicly. Control of Congress shifted from party to party every few years. The basic machinery of representative government faltered and descended into ugliness and public esteem sunk.

As Rauch sees it, the basic congressional problem is power. It is too dispersed. Congress is a bicameral, majoritarian institution. Passing a law requires a majority in the House and usually a super-majority in the Senate. To get anything done means getting a lot of people to say yes, which they often are not inclined to do. What’s needed are leaders who have sufficient power to assemble majorities by offering rewards and punishments. Ideology, Rauch observes, “is brittle glue.” Politics is transactional: politicians want something for their constituents in return for their votes…. (Read more at the R Street Institute Blog)

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