Congress: The Broken Branch?

Congress is never without its critics. And who, to an extent, can blame them? With various flavours of anti-political and anti-establishment candidates now leading the pack in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, it might be said with some accuracy that the ordinary way of doing things is on the run. The reasons for this wider trend need not concern us at present, but it is interesting to assess the extent to which this feeling – which, though it may be relatively without antecedent, remains something of a standard refrain – can be personified in the problems associated with the legislative branch. The famously inane joke of choice for would-be critics – ‘If pro is the opposite of con, what’s the opposite of progress?’ – shows this sentiment is hardly new. It could, however, be said to be growing – and this merits its study in judicious and expeditious a fashion.

One reason which could be seen to to suggest that Congress is a broken branch of government is the way it holds up and delays actions of the federal government and promotes gridlock within the Beltway. In the Senate, alone, this is a recurrent story. Many of President Obama’s judicial appointments have been held up by filibusters; and this is compounded when the GOP closes ranks and defeats any motion put forward to end the filibuster in question. This gives a demonstration of party unity, and illustrates the partisanship with which Congress operates, but it does not seem to resemble effective government in style or substance. With the Senate famed for its less rigid party line, and less stringent whipping of members, this is especially significant. In the House, where representatives are elected every two years, things are even more partisan. The government shutdown of 2013 and the fiscal cliff catastrophe in January of that year both testify to the truth of this observation.

But this interpretation can, of course, be challenged. Partisanship can be good, it is suggested; it can mean that there is no danger of mushy compromise forcing US politicians to renege on promises they made to the electorate. In addition, in areas such as the filibuster, there are ways of dealing with the threat it poses to the smooth running of things. The ‘nuclear option’ hovers ever overhead, like a sword of Damocles or a tired literary reference, when dealing with filibusters; and it has done so more or less successfully. And anyway, the fact that such an option is necessary demonstrates the unpopularity of Obama, which is borne out in the polls. Everything getting a touch too cosy and accommodating in Washington would not reflect national reality; battle lines are drawn across the country, after all – and it would be odd if the Capitol did not reflect this state of affairs.

Another negative aspect of the current congressional make up is its state of affairs in demographic terms. Women make up only 20 per cent of members, and most of those women are Democrats. Ethnic minorities are dramatically underrepresented. What this amounts to is a national legislature which does not represent the population it governs – at least in a microcosmic sense – and this fact leads to detachment and poorly chosen and ineffectively executed policies. The Republican Party has been accused of supporting a raft of policies referred to by some as a ‘war on women’. It is clear, in the minds of some, that this is a bad thing, and that it could be altered by a more representative gender balance in Congress. The lack of representative demographics in Congress could be held, therefore, to demonstrate the brokenness of the branch.

To take an opposing view, however, there are schools of thought that suggest that – if elected officials do their jobs, at least – the actual characteristics of representatives need not matter. A representative ought to represent anyone in their district or state, regardless of gender, race, or sexuality. American advances in civil rights in the 1960s, for example, all came about under white male presidents, after all. Lyndon Johnson, a racist himself in private, undertook a civil rights agenda because he though it the right thing to do as the representative of the nation. The same logic can apply to those in Congress.

A final way in which Congress is the ‘broken branch’ centres on the financial. Pork barrelling, a process where representatives channel federal funds into local projects primarily to assist with their efforts at re-election, is distressingly common. Examples of this include the famous ‘Bridge to nowhere’ in Alaska, as well as a host of others, including defence contracts being guaranteed to take effect in the state of the representative who most vehemently supported certain firms – Boeing or Lockheed, perhaps – in the process of application. To critics of Congress, this is corruption, essentially, and it is undertaken to ensure the manipulation of the democratic will of the people; in paying for re-election, as this is seen, representatives devalue the system by which they are elected.

Such out and out financial manipulation is rare, however – it is far less common than is sometimes made out. And due to states controlling a great deal of their own financial assets, the impact of federal funds with regard to electoral manipulation is further reduced. In addition, it has been argued, what is the true difference between seeking to get ‘the best deal for constituents’ – a common trope in election campaigns – and seeking to acquire contracts for the same region? Politicians aim to create jobs in the areas they represent as a matter of course. Is this truly different from that?

Congress is far from perfect, of course, and it is frequently the target of scatter-gun attacks on its way of functioning, its make-up, and its partisanship; but I must say, at least when compared to the unpleasantness of certain characters, many of whom are considered to be anti-political mavericks by some, I find myself instinctively leaping to the defence of the elected representatives we have. They may be corrupt, unrepresentative and petty (or not, of course); but at least they are not entirely, amorally demagogic – and at least they cannot turn on the head of a pin to catch the slightest gust of populist approval in increasingly tattered sails.