It is true that the Constitution of the United States of America created a legislature. Its principal function is to make laws. It comprises the legislative branch of the federal government, the other two branches being the executive and the judicial.
The authors of the Constitution called this legislative branch “Congress”. They also divided this “Congress” into two parts.
Article I, Section 1:
All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.
When a law or a change to a law is proposed, the Senate and the House of Representatives must both endorse the proposal in order for it to become official, i.e. “the law of the land”. (The Executive branch, embodied by a “President”, also gets to participate in the process. Sometimes the Judicial branch does too.)
So far, so good.
The Constitution nowhere mentions political parties, but it only took a few years for a “two-party system” to develop.
The Founding Fathers did not originally intend for American politics to be partisan. . . . Alexander Hamilton and James Madison . . . wrote specifically about the dangers of domestic political factions. In addition, the first president, George Washington, was not a member of any political party . . . Furthermore, he hoped that political parties would not be formed, fearing conflict and stagnation . . .
Nevertheless, the beginnings of the American two-party system merged from his immediate circle of advisers. Hamilton and Madison . . . ended up being the core leaders in this emerging party system. It was the split camps of Federalists, given rise with Hamilton as a leader, and Democratic-Republicans, with Madison and Thomas Jefferson at the helm . . . that created the environment in which partisanship, once distasteful, came to being [Wikipedia].
How does the two-party system affect Congress? If the majority in both the Senate and the House belong to the same party, it doesn’t make that much difference. If, say, the Racoon Party has the majority in both houses, there is general agreement on which laws to adopt (since senators serve for six years and representatives only serve for two, the members of the two houses sometimes have different priorities even when they belong to the same party).
But what if the Racoons are the majority in the Senate and the Otters are the majority in the House? Or the other way around? It is more difficult for the two majorities to agree on what the country’s laws should be. Sometimes it’s almost impossible.
Since 1857, when the Republicans joined the Democrats as one of America’s two major parties, there have been eighty-two sessions of Congress. By my count, the same party has controlled both houses of Congress sixty-six times, leaving sixteen sessions in which Congress has been divided. We are living through one of those sixteen sessions now, since the Democrats control the House and the Republicans control the Senate.
As we would expect, with two different parties in charge, things are not going well.
For example, the Democrat-led House agreed on legislation in May, almost three months ago, in order to deal with the suffering and disruption caused by Covid-19. Among other things, House Bill 6800 (unfortunately called “The Heroes Act”) would extend the $600 weekly increase in unemployment insurance, make another round of direct payments (up to $6,000 for a family), provide $25 billion to the U.S. Postal Service and increase aid to state and local governments.
The Republican-led Senate has not taken a vote on the House’s bill. Nor has the Senate proposed its own version of legislation to address the same issues (which would then be subject to negotiation with the House). The result is that the $600 increase in unemployment insurance agreed to earlier this year has lapsed. A moratorium on housing evictions is also ending.
So the country is in quite a pickle.
Now here’s what motivated me to express myself today. It’s a headline in The Washington Post.
Congress deeply unpopular again as gridlock on coronavirus relief has real-life consequences
Here’s one from USA Today.
Congress leaves town without a coronavirus stimulus deal, allowing $600 unemployment benefit to end
Here’s a classic example of the problem from an experienced New York Times reporter:
A conservative Republican House member profanely accosts a Democratic congresswoman as she strides up the Capitol steps to do her job during multiple national calamities.
With expanded jobless benefits supporting tens of millions of fearful Americans about to expire and a pandemic raging, Senate Republicans and the [Republican] White House cannot agree among themselves about how to respond, let alone begin to bargain with Democrats.
In a private party session, arch-conservative Republicans ambush their top female leader and demand her ouster over political and policy differences.
And that’s just the past few days.
By nearly any measure, Congress is a toxic mess . . .
Jonathan Chait is a columnist for New York Magazine. He referred to the problem twice in the past month:
If I could change one thing about political coverage, it would be the practice of attributing actions by one party to “Congress” [June 27].
The single worst practice in political journalism is attributing decisions by one party to “Congress” [July 26].
I’d make it “actions or inaction by one party”, but he made a very good point.
My suggestion is that when two different parties are in charge of Congress, people who write about politics for a living should make an effort to specify which party in which house is doing (or not doing) something. That would help readers understand where the dysfunction usually lies (hint: it’s not the Democratic side).
Since my suggesting this will have no effect, I’ll alternatively suggest that when we readers see references to Congress in times like this, we keep in mind that Congress has two parts and that one of those parts (same hint) is totally screwed up.
In fact, in times like this, “Congress” doesn’t really exist.