In my column last week on restoring Congress, I argued that before we call for the legislature to reclaim its old power, we first have to reform it.
How do we go about doing that?
In his thoughtful essay in the New York Times – “What If Congress Were in Charge?” — Yuval Levin offers a number of suggestions. One that I can certainly endorse is a reform of the budgeting process:
By eliminating the distinction between authorization and appropriation, Congress could set spending levels on programs when it defines those programs rather than leaving all budget decisions for one big up or down vote as a shutdown nears. Breaking up budgeting into smaller portions would create more opportunities for real legislative work.
I like this idea a lot. The budget process has clearly broken down and needs to be fixed. Similarly, a reform of the filibuster is advisable, but we should not get rid of it altogether.
But I have to break from Yuval’s larger suggestion. He reckons that Congress has become “too consolidated” and that decentralization, particularly by denuding the congressional parties, is the right strategy. I disagree.
As I argued last week, I think the problem is that Congress as a constitutional entity is too parochial to govern for the national interest. If this analysis is correct, then what we need to do is find ways to nationalize Congress. This does not mean getting rid of Congress altogether and replacing it with some national plebiscite. Local involvement in national affairs is essential to our political identity and brings a multitude of benefits. What we need, rather, is to find centripetal countermeasures to the centrifugal nature of our Congress.
This no doubt rankles those who prefer maximum localism and diversity within Congress. But we have to take the world as it is and not as we wish it to be. If we stipulate that we want public policies that work for the benefit of the whole nation, and that Congress cannot produce these policies on its own, then these centripetal forces have to come from somewhere. Right now, they come from the executive branch. The president has taken on more and more power in part because, as a unitary agent, he can claim to speak for the national interest, whereas Congress is cacophonous in its pronunciations and irresponsible in its policies.
Demanding a decentralized Congress, a properly diminished presidency, and coherent public policy is like wanting your cake and eating it, too. It isn’t going to happen, and we have to find a better alternative than an imperial presidency.
I think a better solution lies in the political parties, a suggestion that I reckon many are prone to dismiss out of hand. The parties have a bad reputation, which they have worked hard to earn! They have long been implicated in the many and various problems of American government. They facilitated political corruption in the 19th century, and today they seem to be the primary culprits in the legislative paralysis that has so frustrated many Americans about the Congress. And yet a careful examination of early party history reveals that the first parties were founded in part for the purpose of establishing popular control over government — and opens up the possibility that they could serve this purpose once again.
In this regard, I’d associate myself with the post-war movement known as “responsible party government” — scholars and politicians who called for a strengthening of the party system. I think that has been good for our politics over the last half-century, and I would go further still.
Edmund Burke, the great English philosopher-statesman of the 18th century, saw the salutary possibility behind parties, or alliances built around “leading general principles in government.” In the 1790s, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison founded what they called the “Republican” party as a way to rally public opinion against what they thought were the monarchical aspirations of Hamilton and his Federalist allies. (This Republican party is distinct from the contemporary GOP and today is often called the Democratic-Republican party.) Thirty years later, after this Republican party splintered, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren breathed new life back into party politics, via what soon became known as the Democratic party, to overcome what they thought was the “Corrupt Bargain” of 1824, whereby Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams supposedly conspired to prevent Jackson, the popular-vote winner, from taking the presidency.
The early history of the parties, then, was partially about securing popular sovereignty. Van Buren, the first unapologetic American party theorist, appreciated this role. In his Autobiography, he acknowledged that the excesses of parties can “produce many evils”; however, the parties are the best way to check “the disposition to abuse power, so deeply planted in the human heart.” I think we can learn a lot from this way of thinking.
Imagine a congressional party structured by several basic qualities. First, prior to the election, it would develop a detailed legislative agenda, upon which it would campaign for office. Second, the party organization, rather than candidates or outside interest groups, would be the predominant agent for financing political campaigns. Third, upon victory, the party would strive earnestly to enact the agenda it campaigned on. Fourth, the party in government would reward or sanction its elected members according to whether they participated in this endeavor: Those who helped the party along would have opportunities for advancement in party ranks; those who did not would suffer rebukes either in Congress (e.g., losing committee assignments) or in the campaign (e.g., being denied the party’s renomination for the subsequent election).
A system like this could redirect the perspectives of legislators in a nationalist direction, increasing Congress’s capacity to govern for the general welfare, rather than parochial interests. It could do this in multiple ways. For starters, members would have a greater incentive to look beyond their own districts. Granted, the constitutional structure of Congress is such that, left to its own devices, it tends to deal with national issues from a parochial perspective. That is just an inevitable feature of legislative districts apportioned according to local geography. But a national party organization with real power to frame campaigns, nominate candidates, and reward or punish incumbents would counter this parochialism — as members of Congress would know that they had to satisfy not only their local constituencies but also the national leadership of the party, which in turn would be responsible to the entire national electorate.
Moreover, a party system that took greater control over the demands of financing politics could liberate individual politicians from having to fundraise; this would reduce the insider advantages that well-heeled donors now enjoy. In fact, centralizing campaign finance within the party could give members of government an additional incentive to toe the party line. If they depend on the party to provide the resources necessary to carry on a campaign, they will be more responsive to the dictates of the party.
Additionally, it could work against our system’s status quo bias. The supermajority requirement to overcome a presidential veto, the two- to six-year staggering of elections to Congress, the need for bicameral unanimity on legislation, and other features make it relatively hard to pass major pieces of legislation. Nevertheless, robust parties could offer a countervailing pressure, pushing the government to get more things done. Members from safe districts often have no incentive to work for a collective effort, as their own electoral fortunes are rarely if ever at stake. But if they actually depended on the parties for their renomination, or if they expected a demotion within the partisan hierarchy for not helping out the team, they would have incentives to go along.
Greater congressional capacity to govern responsibly should yield a stronger congressional will to govern. In the current political landscape, the president is taken by the voters as the main agent who is responsible for the public interest. Members of Congress are usually judged only insofar as they are allied with or against him, giving them an incentive to shuffle authority off to the executive branch. But if voters expect a partisan majority to accomplish the national goals it promised during the campaign, and if they then intend to evaluate the party by judging whether its agenda improves the state of the union, members of Congress will have a motive to exercise power themselves, rather than delegate to the president. Their electoral fortunes will depend on their own public service, rather than on supporting or opposing the president.
If I am right, and a strengthened Congress would be a happy effect of a stronger party system, then we have to think about how to improve the parties. I will offer ideas on that next week.