There Is No “Congress”

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.

Democrats and Republicans

Today, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, gave the longest speech in the history of the House, which goes back to 1789. After it was discovered that the House rules allow party leaders to speak as long as they want, Pelosi stood and spoke for a little over eight hours.

The longest speech in the history of the U.S. Senate lasted 24 hours. It was given in 1957 by a racist Southerner in opposition to that year’s Civil Rights Act. At the time, he was a Democrat (because most Southerners were), but he became a Republican after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights act (as most Southerners did). He remained a Republican for the next thirty-nine years.

That basically sums up our two political parties. A woman wants people illegally brought here as children to be protected against deportation and to have a chance to become American citizens. A man wanted to stop everyone from having equal rights, especially black people.

How to Fix Congress

Congress is under the control of Republicans who are terribly afraid of primary challenges from right-wing nuts. So Congressional Republicans behave as if they are right-wing nuts themselves, even if they aren’t (some of them aren’t).

In a column devoted to reactions to President Obama’s recent economic speech, Alex Pareene responds to the idea that Obama needs “bold, new proposals” in order to get the Republicans to cooperate:

I dunno, the only bold new proposal I can think of that will meaningfully break down Republican resistance would be to massively expand the size of the House and institute nationwide nonpartisan redistricting, and somehow do this before the 2014 elections, and then get rid of the filibuster? That would be pretty bold.

The House doesn’t represent the will of the people, because small states are over-represented (some congressional districts are nearly twice as large as others) and recent gerrymandering results in more Republicans being elected than Democrats, even though Democrats get more votes. (This rightward tilt is made even stronger by the Republicans’ adherence to the so-called “Hastert Rule”: bills don’t get a vote unless they’re supported by a majority of Republicans, i.e. a majority of the majority).

The Senate, of course, was designed to give extra power to small states and the filibuster gives extra power to the minority. It’s a little-known fact that the original rules of both the House and Senate allowed debate to be ended by a majority vote. In 1806, however, Vice President Aaron Burr convinced senators that they didn’t need such a rule; the rule hadn’t been invoked recently so it was just cluttering up the rule book. That change created the possibility of a filibuster, the requirement that a super-majority be required to end debate. The first filibuster occurred 31 years later. Now ordinary business often requires the approval of 60 Senators. So much for majority rule.

Unfortunately, the likelihood that Mr. Parene’s “bold, new ideas” will soon be adopted is approximately zero. It’s true that the Senate might change its rules; that could happen now if some Democratic senators weren’t afraid of the consequences. But it’s highly unlikely that the House will be expanded (although someone is arguing for that to happen: The most we can hope for is that Congressional districts will one day be drawn with little or no political influence — or that whoever carries out the next round of gerrymandering does a better job.

Democracy by the Numbers

For several years, I’ve occasionally driven back and forth between Vermont and upstate New York. The difference between the two states is always noticeable.

On the Vermont side of the border, everything seems neat and tidy and pleasant. There are billboards that say even the gas stations are nice in Vermont (I don’t remember seeing vases of plastic flowers in gas station restrooms in other states.)

The New York side of the border, however, which is equally rural, always looks shabby and rundown. The atmosphere in towns like Whitehall and Fort Ann is depressing. Every time I drive through there I wonder what the people do for a living.

So it was good to see confirmation of my assessment, and a possible explanation, in the New York Times: 

“In the four years after the financial crisis struck, a great wave of federal stimulus money washed over Rutland County (Vermont). It helped pay for bridges, roads, preschool programs, a community health center, buses and fire trucks, water mains and tanks… Just down Route 4, at the New York border, the landscape abruptly turns from spiffy to scruffy. Washington County, N.Y., which is home to about 60,000 people — just as Rutland is — saw only a quarter as much money.”

The Times suggests that the key difference between these adjoining regions is that Vermont, as a small state, has the same number of U.S. senators as New York, a very large state:

“Vermont’s 625,000 residents have two United States senators, and so do New York’s 19 million. That means that a Vermonter has 30 times the voting power in the Senate of a New Yorker just over the state line — the biggest inequality between two adjacent states.”

There are surely other reasons for the obvious discrepancy between Vermont and upstate New York, but it’s very likely that different levels of political representation are an important factor. States like Vermont and Wyoming (population 580,000) have the same number of senators as New York and California (population 38 million). That affects where the money goes.

Small states are even over-represented in the House. The representative from Wyoming has 580,000 constituents. The average representative from California has 720,000. Throw in the effect of gerrymandering in the House, which recently helped Republicans win 53% of the seats while receiving 48% of the popular vote, and it shouldn’t be surprising that Congress doesn’t reflect the will of the people.