Congress — A Broken Institution

Anjali Akula

Congress was designed to be the most powerful branch of government. It was equipped with the power of the purse and the power to create nation-changing legislation. Most importantly, Congress was intended to serve as the voice of the people. However, even in an age marked by partisanship, most Americans disapprove of Congress’s performance. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 33% of Republicans, 38% of Democrats, and 29% of Independents genuinely trust Congress.

Why do so many Americans distrust Congress? One of the biggest complaints is that Congress works too slowly for anything to be accomplished. Some counter this point, claiming that Congress is simply deliberate and their deliberateness is a byproduct of its democratic nature. However, we must critically analyze whether Congress is purposefully methodical or is simply ineffective.

Consider this past year. It has been a tough year for Americans with Black Lives Matter protests, the coronavirus, and a corrosively partisan Presidential election. Yet, we have seen little to no response from Congress. For instance, Black Lives Matter has been the biggest protest for racial equality since the Civil Rights Movement and there has been no criminal justice reform initiated by Congress. Since March, millions of Americans have been struggling to pay rent or keep their small businesses afloat as Nancy Pelosi and Steve Mnuchin struggle to pass a second stimulus bill for Coronavirus relief. Hence, maybe the right question to be asking isn’t why Americans distrust Congress, but why Congress is non-responsive to the people.

So, why is Congress functioning — or dysfunctioning — in the way that it is?

One of the major problems is a lack of oversight on multiple fronts. Congress has been bowing more to the executive branch and providing less oversight of the President’s and Cabinet’s actions. This lack of accountability is further compounded by the media who do not focus on the contents of legislation but rather on the sensationalist aspects of politics.

Another major issue, and the problem that is perhaps most apparent to the American people, is extreme partisanship. According to the Brookings Institution, there has been more partisan identification rather than institutional identification in Congress. In addition, the Association of Former Members of Congress cite “weakened relationships” between members across the aisle, “hyperpartisanship” and “polarization” as major factors that contribute to Congress’ ineffectiveness. Simply put, Congress was built for compromise and there is a detrimental lack of cooperation in a time when Americans need it most.

Finally, Congress has become what Libertarian representative Justin Amash calls “a performance sport”. In a recent podcast with former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, Amash speaks about the lack of open amendments in Congress. Open amendments are a way for representatives to change legislation in their constituents’ interest while actively debating a bill. He says that Paul Ryan was the first Speaker of the House in U.S. history to not have open amendments on legislation, and Nancy Pelosi has continued this precedent. Because the avenue by which representatives could change legislation has been closed, Congress members spend a significant amount of time campaigning and fundraising, not legislating. This trend, taken in conjunction with the partisan identification discussed earlier, results in party members not consciously voting, but simply falling in line with their party leaders. Our elected officials cannot actively participate in creating laws so they focus on campaigning while the party leaders control the entire legislative process.

With all of these contributing factors, it is no wonder that in a year of a global recession, a pandemic, and widespread protests, Congress could not respond. Yet, we must remember Congress’ essential role in our government.

Federalist 52 said this about Congress:

As it is essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people, so it is particularly essential that the branch of it under consideration [the House of Representatives] should have an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people.

Today, most Americans hardly feel “an intimate sympathy” with Congress. In a time marked by the coronavirus and the BLM movement, Congressional reform is hardly the first thing on the minds of most Americans. But we have to pay attention to what our representatives are doing. We elected them to represent us and they are failing.
A democracy is based on having elected officials execute the wishes of the people. If Congress isn’t doing that, who will?

Anjali Akula is a sophomore in Information Systems with a minor in Computer Science and another minor in Science, Technology and Policy. She’s one of the blog writers for CMU Triple Helix. Outside of academics, she likes taking walks and painting.

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