m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

May 1995

Too Representative Government

Why is Congress held in such low esteem? One reason is that as it has become more truly representative, it has tried to solve more and more problems, including many that no one knows how to solve--thus raising expectations and frequently disappointing them. Quick-fix reforms aren't likely to make the public any happier with the legislative branch

by Steven Stark

Suppose you were an idiot," Mark Twain wrote during the Gilded Age. "And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself." "Do you pray for the senators?" someone asked the chaplain of the Senate in 1903. "No, I look at the senators and pray for the country," he replied.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. The 104th Congress began work in January, and talk of institutional revolution is once again in the air. It's not just that the Republicans--finally in control of both Houses for the first time in four decades--have begun reforming the least popular branch by taking such measures as applying all federal employment laws to Congress, cutting House committee staffs by a third, and requiring a 60 percent majority in the House to approve tax increases. Many critics, such as Kevin Phillips and Lamar Alexander, have discussed a number of rather radical proposals for recasting the institution--everything from term limits to increasing the size of Congress to cutting the length of the session in half to instituting national referenda.

One might argue that some of these changes would make Congress more effective, as would a few of the currently popular (but unlikely to pass) proposals for campaign-finance overhaul and restrictions on lobbying.

A number of scholars, former members of Congress, and other observers suggest, however, that even far-reaching reforms--not to mention the recent election results--are unlikely to quell the public's considerable discontent with Congress for long. In its attempts to lay the blame for that discontent at the feet of the Democrats, the new Republican majority is ignoring a fundamental reality that has come into being over the past generation: owing largely to the changing nature of representation, the expanding role of the federal government, and the influence of television, the public has arrived at new and often contradictory expectations of how Congress should act and what it should do. Until these contradictions are resolved, Congress is doomed to unpopularity and ineffectiveness, no matter who controls it.

There is, after all, an inevitable tension in any legislative system between deliberation and action, discretion and responsiveness. The job of a legislature is not only to get things done but also to air points of view and ensure the legitimacy of governmental action. These goals often conflict--as do the objectives of representing a constituency while exercising independent judgment, or looking out for both the national and the local interest. Throughout American history the pendulum has swung back and forth as legislators have tried to come to terms with these tensions. Today, however, voters apparently believe that the pendulum can be made to stop. In much the same way as the public seems to want a welfare state without picking up the tab, it wants the advantages of a legislative system without any of the costs.

Even if Congress adopts all the most ambitious reforms, this cannot be achieved. No matter how noble the goal, virtually any reform that seeks to change the makeup of Congress (such as term limits) or encourage debate or make members rely less on staff, so that they will draft their own bills and read those of others, will lead the institution to be even more dependent on special interests or to get less done. Almost any proposal that increases the institution's ability to act quickly, such as eliminating the filibuster or making it easier to "fast track" legislation, will tend to alienate those in the minority and cause some attempts at lawmaking to be less judicious and acceptable to the masses. Attempts to limit the length of the session will inevitably narrow the range of concerns that Congress can tackle. Although many of the current Republican proposals for institutional reform have surface appeal, chances are that they will eventually end up antagonizing at least as many voters as they please. And Congress will end up just as unpopular as it was when the Republicans took over, if not more so.

The Wired Congress

For the first four decades of the Republic, congressmen actually spent very little time in Washington. For the next century or so they had little contact with their districts once they were in Washington. (Senators, of course, were not even popularly elected until early in this century.) Theorists from Thomas Hobbes to Edmund Burke had debated the extent to which representatives should directly reflect the desires of their constituents, but that debate took place in a world in which a lot of groups couldn't vote, news was hard to come by, and no one really knew how to measure public opinion other than in an election. The difficulty of travel and the irregularity of mail delivery made communication between constituents and Congress problematic. Thus members inevitably had to exercise independent judgment on most issues, no matter where they stood philosophically on the representation question.

Today things have swung to the opposite extreme, and not just because the infamous lobbyists surround congressmen and senators. Daily polling, E-mail, 800 numbers, and call-in shows have exponentially increased the contact that representatives have with their constituents. "Many days I felt like nothing more than the end of a computer terminal," Elliott Levitas, a former representative from Georgia, told me in an interview. The danger today is not that representatives know too little about what the electorate feels but that they know too much. Like body temperature, public opinion can shift hourly without consequence. "The cooling-off process that used to exist isn't there any more," Dennis Eckart, a former representative from Ohio, says. "As a lover of democracy, I can appreciate that, but there was an advantage to having an electorate that couldn't figure out what was in a tax bill." What's more, polls are often misleading--in part because they can be manipulated, and in part because many issues are so complex that the public holds conflicting views of what it wants, and expects its representatives magically to resolve the conflict.

"Ultimately, there's very little clarity to all those poll numbers, even though a lot of analysts attach great significance to them," says Peter Smith, formerly a representative from Vermont and now the founding president of California State University at Monterey Bay. "Health care and welfare reform are abstractions, no matter what a poll says. People favor something in general. When you get down to specifics, however, they often don't." The debate last session over President Bill Clinton's health-care bill illustrated that principle once again.

The rise of constituency politics has also led the public to view legislators simply as instruments of its will. The political scientist David Mayhew, of Yale University, is not alone in having observed that the job of a federal legislator changed dramatically with the rise of New Deal and Great Society programs. Now an increasing number of constituents look to their legislator not only to obtain valuable pork-barrel projects for their state or district but also to help them obtain personal benefits from the government and its bureaucracies.

This development has been exacerbated by the fact that representatives have to serve more constituents today than they did in the past. Sixty-five representatives served four million Americans in the first Congress--a ratio of approximately 1:60,000. Today, with 435 representatives serving a population of more than 260 million, the ratio is approximately 1:600,000. Offices in home states have proliferated, and legislative aides have increasingly been transformed into caseworkers, thereby accounting for a healthy proportion of the increase in the size of those vilified congressional staffs. (The Republican reforms haven't even touched House and Senate personal-staff members, almost 40 percent of whom now work in district or state offices.) It should be no surprise, then, that voters increasingly view their legislators almost as personal therapists--a perspective that hardly encourages representatives to show any independence from the will of their districts, or to act in the national interest when it conflicts with local concerns. If legislators now seem excessively parochial and preoccupied with day-to-day responsiveness, that is what they are hearing the public demand.

While these changes have been occurring, Congress has also been attracting members of a different kind, whether Republican or Democrat. Virtually everyone agrees that today's representatives tend to be far better educated and informed, more professional, and less graft-ridden than their predecessors. Yet many also believe that something is missing from this generation in Congress--even from the new Republicans. "What happened is that as the quality of the legislature went up, its performance went down," says Theodore Lowi, a professor of government at Cornell University. "These people are much more individual entrepreneurs; they have far less respect for party institutions and hierarchy." Or, as the former representative Al Swift, of Washington, puts it, "We'd be better off with four hundred and ten followers and twenty-five leaders than the other way around."

The new entrepreneurial style is blamed in part for the lack of collegiality in Congress and the proliferation of committee and subcommittee assignments on the Hill, which have increased for senators and nearly doubled for representatives since the 1950s. (The number of committees and subcommittees has actually shrunk, owing to reorganizations; the Republican Contract With America has consolidated even more committees.) It also helps account, Lowi says, for the fact that Congress has become so sensitive to short-term public opinion: "They don't have the party to hide behind anymore. Because they're more individually accountable, they feel much more vulnerable and they react accordingly."

Circular Cures

Reversing the trend toward a professional class of legislators is the goal of the term-limits movement. Mark Petracca, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine, has written that legislative professionalization runs counter to the basic values of representative government, because "a profession entails a set of role relationships between 'experts' and 'clients'" which are fundamentally at odds with the way Congress is supposed to work. Yet the desire for a "citizen legislature," embodied in the term-limits movement, may be as quixotic as the search for a doctor who still makes house calls. "Sure, Congress has changed, but so has the country," says Ronald Peters, the director of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center, at the University of Oklahoma. "Things have become less hierarchical than they once were almost everywhere. Part of this is generational, but a lot of it is just the way we've changed as a people. Legislators are more autonomous, but so is everyone else in the culture. This institution may be more professional, but all disciplines are becoming more professionalized. This is all part of a larger pattern, which in one sense couldn't be more representative."

The current cultural preoccupation with inclusion has also had important effects. Opening up the process to everyone--by such means as expansion of voting rights, more primaries and referenda, and encouraging access to government services--could be characterized as the major theme of our politics over the past third of a century, and there's obviously a lot to be said for it. The congressional response to Watergate, for example, often focused on the process of government, not its substance: lawmakers passed "sunshine laws" to force government to be more open and ethical, and in a spasm of reform wiped out many seniority privileges to make Congress more egalitarian. Even today, when complaints about Congress focus on how process reforms have still failed to address the institution's underlying problems, many of the popular ideas about how to change Congress--such as term limits and more referenda--continue to focus on process. The problems caused by being more democratic and process-oriented, both Republicans and Democrats seem to be saying, can be solved by being even more democratic and process-oriented.

The more a system values giving everyone a voice, however, the less it can value speed and effectiveness. All those voices have to be heard, and frequently they have to be accommodated. The correlate of enabling more women and members of minorities to be part of the legislature--a laudable goal--is that their concerns must be addressed, even though some of these concerns have traditionally been ignored by most legislatures. Irwin Gertzog, in his book Congressional Women, finds that women in Congress are far likelier than their male colleagues to stress such issues as the treatment of rape victims, the problems of displaced homemakers, and funding for diagnostic tests for breast cancer. "Congress succeeds much better as a representative body than it used to," says Michael Mezey, a professor of political science at DePaul University, "which means it's probably somewhat less successful as a lawmaking body."

Democratizing the internal rules of Congress has also made it harder to accomplish anything substantive. The more a culture moves toward democracy, however, the more it empowers those forces that have the ability to manipulate public opinion or provide access. The rise in the importance of media consultants, the press, and special-interest money is directly proportional to the growth of democracy in the culture and in Congress over the past thirty years. Read the polls or listen to talk radio and you will find that the complaints today are as much about these new forces and what they have done to the process as about anything else. The urge to destroy elites has simply created another class of them; the solution has become the problem. And the Republicans are doing next to nothing to stop that.

The Buck Stops Nowhere

Congress once tended to pass relatively concrete, simple laws in relatively few areas, which meant that the results of any lawmaking were far easier to assess. For our first 140 years it dealt with economic issues primarily through tariffs and focused on the country's expansion, wars, and treaties. There was little money to spend, and the Constitution had been interpreted as allowing far less federal intrusion into the workings of the states than we know today.

"Nineteenth-century Congresses actually worked better," Theodore Lowi says. "They just passed very limited, piecemeal laws." At the turn of the century the House had no staff members and the Senate only a few. (By 1991 the personal staffs of the two houses together numbered more than 11,000, and nearly another 3,500 people worked for the committees.)

The passage of a federal income tax early in this century was the first step toward the creation of the welfare state. Still, the concept of dealing with complicated economic and social-welfare problems on a systematic national basis really arose during the crisis presented by the Great Depression and then the Second World War. Congress's response in the 1930s and the three decades that followed was to cede to the executive branch (which had drafted most of the laws in the first place) the authority to solve most of these problems--and the creation of administrative agencies, along with the enlargement of administrators' responsibilities, was often part of the solution. The idea was that many problems were too complex or technical for a legislature and that a specialized agency such as the Federal Communications Commission, or an administrator such as the Secretary of Agriculture, could do a better job of solving them. These agencies were also created in an era when there was much intellectual support for the notion that decisions should be taken away from legislatures and given to experts, who knew better.

The typical congressional grant of authority to do this was quite brief, simple, and vague: "[to regulate] interstate and foreign commerce in communication by wire and radio"; to make agricultural marketing "orderly." In theory, Congress would strictly oversee the agency's performance. In reality, representatives were usually happy to pass the buck to someone else and leave the agency alone, except when they needed a favor. As it happened, legislators soon discovered that such a setup also allowed them to claim credit for a program and then, if things went awry, "run against the bureaucracy"--a bureaucracy they had created, to avoid having to deal with problems themselves. The buck stopped nowhere.

The Supreme Court put a stop to elements of Roosevelt's New Deal, on the grounds that the Constitution simply did not allow the federal government to act in many areas. Support for a further expansion of federal power, however, took hold in the public imagination in the 1950s and 1960s, with the civil-rights revolution, which ended up discrediting intellectual and legal arguments about "states' rights." Nelson Polsby, an expert on Congress and a professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley, says, "It became an article of faith among liberals that you can't trust Mississippi, so you have to nationalize these things."

60,000 Pages

For Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs, in the mid-sixties, Congress was still using the New Deal agency as a model--with important differences. First, the traditional division between federal and state authority having been obliterated, Congress began moving into substantive areas, such as crime and housing, that had traditionally been beyond the purview of the federal government except in extreme emergencies. The early civil-rights laws were working, after all, and many of the nation's problems seemed rooted in its troubled racial past; a federal takeover seemed justified. Once involved in those areas, however, Congress kept expanding its grasp, eventually dictating to states on traditionally local questions--speed limits, for example. The result is that today Congress routinely passes laws dealing with local matters--crime, homelessness, education--and nobody even blinks at the loss of local control, which was once a cornerstone of our Jeffersonian public philosophy. As the former representative Al Swift puts it, "We've kind of blurred the distinction between a county sheriff and a congressman."

That's a recent and radical turn in our history, and one--"devolution" rhetoric to the contrary--that the Republicans show little sign of undoing. It is not simply that Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich may be misreading last year's election returns when he maintains that the public agrees it is time to dismantle much of the Great Society, or return programs to the states. The Contract With America, for example, promised a tougher anti-crime package, "strengthening rights of parents in their children's education," stronger child-pornography laws, and new rules to reform the welfare system, tort law, and product liability--efforts in many areas beyond what was seen as the purview of Congress when the Republicans last held both houses.

The 1960s blizzard of legislation came during an era when belief in the possibilities of governmental power may have been at a peak. In the 1965--1966 session alone nearly 20,000 bills were introduced. (The number in recent years has averaged fewer than 10,000 a session.) "If we can put a man on the moon, we can [fill in the blank]" seemed to characterize almost every politician's stump speech. Every problem, it seemed, had an effective legislative solution. Alan Ehrenhalt, the author of The United States of Ambition, finds that legislators of both parties still hold this belief. "Legislators are used to solving problems," he says. "Government tends to attract people who think government can solve problems. But once you get into things like crime, welfare, and education, you're trying to change human behavior, and that's much tougher to do. The New Deal was small potatoes compared to most of this stuff."

"Several things happen when the government gets into these areas," says James Q. Wilson, a professor of management and public policy at the University of California at Los Angeles. "First, no one really knows how to solve these problems. Second, the public itself is deeply conflicted about most of these issues; you rarely have a consensus from which to act. Third, these issues tend to be so complex that they overwhelm the process. And finally, when these measures fail to do much to solve something like crime--which is what inevitably happens--they greatly reinforce the general disillusionment with government. There's something to be said for sticking with what you know how to do."

During that legislative blizzard Congress was no longer just distributing money or dealing with problems in discrete areas (how to regulate the airwaves, or how to provide a supplemental income to senior citizens), and the grand problems it confronted, like poverty and crime, seemed to require a variety of coordinated strategies. "That was a key mistake," Theodore Lowi says. "Health and welfare are not holistic things; they're a collection of problems. The bills collapse of their own weight." Such bills also tend to be so elaborate that voters have difficulty understanding them--which means, at a minimum, that opponents have an easy time raising fears about them. Unsurprisingly, the public becomes more engaged when Congress is debating a seemingly straightforward issue like the Gulf War, in which voters can understand what is at stake.

Nonetheless, over time congressmen on both sides of the aisle began drafting longer, more comprehensive bills; the number of pages of law entered into the statute books during the relatively uneventful 1991--1992 session was two and a half times the number entered by the 1965--1966 Great Society Congress. With many legislators continually preoccupied by issues of openness and equal availability of services, access and due process became legislative focuses. That translated into greatly increased complexity and bureaucracy, not to mention a drain on the courts as litigants attempted to enforce their new rights. In 1936 there were 2,355 pages of regulations amplifying federal laws published in the Federal Register. By 1969 the number had risen to 20,464 pages; in the 1990s the register has been averaging about 60,000 pages a year.

No Amendments Wanted

Trying to solve a national megaproblem with one huge bill is still an American obsession, as the recent health-care debate showed. Still, by the late 1960s the old model of legislating had begun to fall out of favor, at least in one respect. The criticism, advanced by Ralph Nader and others, was that administrative agencies such as the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Federal Communications Commission inevitably became controlled by the forces they were supposed to regulate. Moreover, distrust of authority was expanding along with voting rights, and there was a corresponding lack of trust in the opinions of experts vis-a-vis "the people." As David Schoenbrod, a professor at New York Law School, has related in Power Without Responsibility (1993), what followed was a series of congressional statutes (beginning with the Clean Air Act, in 1970), passed with bipartisan support, that started to abandon the concept of open-ended delegation to independent agencies. Instead these laws essentially ordered the agency in question to take action and gave "elaborate instructions about the goals that it should achieve and the procedures for promulgating them." These instructions often placed administrative obligations on the states, while Congress took credit for the benefits of the legislation. As a result of this legislative model statutes not only became lengthier and more complicated but also began running up hidden costs, while parochial and elite interests inevitably asserted their influence with help from both sides of the aisle: it was Alaska's Republican senator Ted Stevens, after all, who got grant money for Alaska to try to convert the aurora borealis into electricity. (As Congress-watchers point out, by the past session Congress was appropriating money for a University of Georgia study of city pests, ordering the Department of Health and Human Services to hire "six medium sedans" for transport, and adding what amounted to a gang-rehabilitation program to a flood-relief bill.) And over time Congress confronted many scientific or technical questions--such as how to clean the air--that were far beyond the expertise of most congressmen. So legislators of both parties hired more staff members to deal with these questions, and stopped reading much of their own legislation. Because members needed to rely on experts to draft these extensive and specific statutes, they also became increasingly reliant on "special interests"--if not to write the bills, then at least to tell them what the bills said before a vote. Cutting committee staff, as the Republicans have done, will hardly solve this problem, particularly for newer members, who tend to know less about technical problems than their more experienced colleagues.

The effect of an interstate-highway-building program or a Voting Rights Act--two legislative success stories from the 1950s and 1960s--can be assessed fairly easily. But, as Bruce Ackerman and Susan Rose-Ackerman, professors at Yale Law School, ask in The Uncertain Search for Environmental Quality, how does a deliberative body measure precisely the relationship between clean water and public health, let alone determine whether clean water could be had more cheaply by another method? What's more, even if a given approach makes sense now, things change over time. Once a bill gains a constituency--and all those that are enacted do, if only for economic reasons--it becomes very difficult to shift course.

The result has been a proliferation of vague or increasingly unworkable laws that judges cannot revise under current theories of statutory interpretation. (The same is not true of the common law.) These laws can also bankrupt the country, as the laws become ever more complex and costs mount. The Clean Air Act of 1970, complex as it was, filled forty-seven pages in the United States Code. The revision twenty years later filled more than 200 in the denser Congressional Record.

Having so many more constituents and areas of responsibility than it had in the past has also stymied Congress and shifted the way it operates. Besides muscling its way into areas once left to the states, Congress has spent an increasing amount of time over the past two decades on budgetary matters: the number of roll calls on budget questions in the House was almost six times as great in 1991 as it was in 1955--yet another trend that seems unlikely to change with Republican control. "The change in work load has affected the way Congress acts, which in turn has affected public perceptions," says Bruce I. Oppenheimer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, who studies Congress. "In a time-constrained environment the opposition gains power. The filibuster wasn't used much before 1970, because it wasn't a very effective weapon. Who cared if you wasted time? Congress never ran out of time." In a legislative world where time is scarce, democratic values also tend to collapse and mistakes to become more common. One of the purposes of deliberation, after all, is to achieve consensus and avoid error. Tellingly, bills for many of the major legislative achievements of the past sixty years, though contentious, ended up passing with large majorities. For example, the Social Security Act passed in 1935 with seventy-seven votes in the Senate; the Civil Rights Act in 1964 won seventy-three.

Yet one of the distinguishing characteristics of recent sessions, particularly in the House, is that what little deliberation did once occur has been virtually eliminated. That, in turn, has increased partisanship. In recent years a bill has had about half the chance of passage that it had fifty years ago. In part to speed things up--which is, after all, what the public says it wants--bills introduced on the floor increasingly restrict amendments. Although the Republicans have promised to address that, so far there has been no significant change. Debates now typically take place with no one listening in the chamber, as anyone who has ever watched C-SPAN knows. Even the much-praised Senate and House exchanges before passage of the Gulf War resolution, in January of 1991, consisted primarily of members' rising to deliver prepared speeches to a body in which virtually every mind was already made up. And this year? The Republicans have added many new wrinkles to Congress, but careful deliberation does not appear to be among them.

The Camera and Congress

A different kind of congressional persona tends to flourish in the television age. Fifteen years ago Michael J. Robinson, a professor at Catholic University, wrote, "The increasingly greater reliance on the media for nomination, election, status in the Congress, and reelection is one sign of a new congressional character--one more dynamic, egocentric, immoderate, and, perhaps, intemperate." These telegenic figures, according to one source Robinson cited, were often more concerned with getting on television than with legislative mechanics--yet another reason for the lack of consensus, the emphasis on the illusion of results, and the expansion of staff to deal with the institution's real missions.

Because of its inherent biases, television has also subtly altered the way the public perceives Congress. C-SPAN, of course, has opened up the daily workings of Congress, but its effect is quite limited. C-SPAN's typical audience is minuscule compared with the audience that receives news about Congress from the major networks--which have greatly influenced the way print sources cover Congress.

The communications theorist Ernest Bormann once wrote that "television news coverage is, in many respects, an exercise in creative dramatics in which a cast of familiar characters assembles . . . and improvises a drama according to a stock scenario depending on the news event." By now the scenario involving Congress is very familiar. Because television is drawn to strong characters, it elevates the importance of the President and the speaker of the House vis-a-vis the institution of Congress. Because the medium is drawn to conflict, it denigrates the value of compromise, upon which legislatures depend, and plays up scandal or contentiousness. A recent study by S. Robert Lichter and Daniel R. Amundson, of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, has found that from 1972 to 1992 the proportion of network news stories concerning ethical lapses in Congress more than quadrupled, and the proportion of those portraying conflict between members nearly tripled from 1987 to 1992 (though, to be fair, conflict is up). Television is wedded to the dramatic gesture, and legislative bodies when legislating rarely act in a theatrical fashion. What's more, the legislative process is often messy and difficult; its lack of clear lines and packaging violates the whole spirit of scripted entertainment that has come to dominate the culture. The workings of Congress are complex and thus time-consuming to explain, and time is something that network television apparently cannot afford.

Changing the voters as much as the candidates, television creates a passive audience of viewer-voters who demand instant gratification and no loose ends. In a world where advertisers constantly proclaim, "You can have it all!" and "Just Do It!" voters have come to see government institutions as ones that should provide it all and just do it, Ross Perot--style. Commercial television also offers an implicit vision of the world in which it's not community or belief in an abiding principle that offers happiness but the acquisition of goods. No wonder, then, that as television became pervasive and the postwar consumer culture took root, voters came increasingly to view the purpose of Congress--if not of government--as guaranteeing their right to that happiness.

With Congress thus increasingly frustrated in its primary responsibility to develop and pass good laws, its members have turned to other tasks, many of them nurtured by television. Here, too, the Republicans have been no different from the Democrats. The memorable moments of the past three decades in Congress have naturally tended to come in front of the cameras--from the McCarthy hearings to Watergate to the Anita Hill--Clarence Thomas confrontation. Congress has been conducting investigations since the 1790s. Yet it is undeniable that congressional investigations have flourished in the television age, thereby appropriating more of Congress's time and attention. Unlike the typical lawmaking process, these hearings offer the broadcast media drama and compelling characters in a stately scene. And, as Daniel Boorstin pointed out nearly thirty-five years ago, in his book The Image, the real purpose of hearings is often difficult to discern. "In many cases," Boorstin wrote, "these committees have virtually no legislative impulse, and sometimes no intelligible legislative assignment."

And there is the confirmation process--another area that consumes increasing amounts of the Senate's energy, if only because the number of posts that require confirmation has risen from 149 to 310 since 1960. Confirmation fights are also part of our history, but dramatic confirmation hearings are mostly a media-age phenomenon. Here, too, the consensus is that the cameras have contorted the process into great TV drama but something of a well-documented travesty. In foreign policy, a stage that Presidents have long dominated, Congress has tried to share the television spotlight in recent decades, with the same mixed results and a commensurate loss of time to spend in other areas. In War and Responsibility (1993) the Stanford University law professor John Hart Ely argues that while Congress has appeared to try to take more responsibility for military action in recent decades, it has in fact happily abdicated to the President most of its powers in this area. This has allowed many members to claim credit when military ventures go well, but to hold accusatory hearings and press conferences before the cameras when they don't.

Congressional actions in the television age have thus come to join the category that Boorstin called "pseudo-events"--in which the illusion of results becomes far more significant in the culture than the results themselves. In legislative hearings that don't really look at legislation, in crime bills that almost everyone privately admits will do next to nothing to reduce crime, the appearance and the drama of the action overshadow the importance of the action itself. Pseudo-events, Boorstin said, are usually more interesting than real actions, and they therefore seem more compelling and often more real. He wrote, Once we have tasted the charm of pseudo- events, we are tempted to believe they are the only important events. . . . And the poison tastes so sweet that it spoils our appetite for plain fact. Our seeming ability to satisfy our exaggerated expectations makes us forget that they are exaggerated.

Tainted Prescriptions

In the end it is always easy to romanticize the past, just as it is tempting to exaggerate how much a shift in control will change Congress. A fifty-two-seat shift in the House is unusual in modern times, but it may mean only that the country is returning to the electoral patterns of a century ago, when party control of Congress often shifted back and forth by large margins, while the body drew its share of criticism. "There was no golden age of legislation," says the Yale political scientist David Mayhew.

Agreement is almost universal that Congress could take a number of steps both to purge itself of the effects of special-interest money and to make the legislative process operate more efficiently. After last November there is a perception of hope that the new majority will at least try to do the latter. (The Republican Party has never been enthusiastic about campaign-finance or lobbying reform.) But the Republicans, while in some ways addressing the expanding role of the federal government, appear only slightly more aware than the Democrats before them of the real polarities of sentiment that will have to be addressed before Congress can truly be reformed.

Few of the proposed structural reforms, moreover, would have the effect their proponents suggest. The notion, for example, that a national referendum would be any less susceptible than the legislative process to special-interest influence is ludicrous; and studies on term limits suggest that imposing a twelve-year limit would increase the mean turnover rate in the House by all of one percent per election (though it might, for better or worse, change the type of person elected to Congress). Sending Congress home for six months a year, or cutting down on staff, means that legislators would do less, more slowly; eliminating the filibuster and instituting referenda would be designed to get more or different laws on the books more quickly.

These reforms would not solve "the problem" with Congress, because voters and their representatives are terribly confused about what that is. Voters say they want less government at lower cost, but they apparently want it to do much of what it now does--or more. Polls tell us that among the major complaints about Congress are that it doesn't represent the voters well enough and that it becomes gridlocked--failing to solve the nation's lingering problems, such as health care and welfare reform. Yet over the past two generations Congress has become far more representative and responsive than it used to be, and it now addresses issues that previous legislatures never dreamed of. Nevertheless, as public disillusionment increases, the impulse has been to become even more closely tied to public opinion and to find new legislative ways of attacking megaproblems more quickly and efficiently. The Republicans don't propose to turn all of crime control or tort-law reform over to the states; they propose to enact many of the sweeping reforms themselves, and do it better and faster than the Democrats. So the demands and the contradictions spiral on, out of control. The solutions are manifestations of the problem.

Ironically, what Congress may need is not more democracy but less, and the will to address not bigger problems faster but smaller ones in more-measured ways. Admittedly, much of the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s changed the country profoundly for the better, and subsequent efforts toward greater democracy and openness were implemented in good faith. Now it is time to declare these efforts a success--we have democratized the process!--and move on to developing a public philosophy to address some of the problems we have acquired from encouraging access to national government.

In the populist rush to extend the spirit of democracy that, as Alexis de Tocqueville reminded us 150 years ago, is part of the American character, today's voters and leaders often forget that this is, in the end, a republic. The founders feared the power of the mob and provided distance between the rulers and the ruled, so that our representatives could deliberate much like a jury and exercise collective judgment and even wisdom. Their job, in the words of The Federalist Papers, was to "refine and enlarge" the popular will. It is a hierarchical relationship; they are entrusted with power. No parents or teachers worth their salt poll their children or pupils constantly and then give in at the first sign of discontent--just as no legislators in their right minds would cut taxes while keeping government benefits the same. Yet that's what pure representation will do for us a lot of the time. Paradoxically, giving legislators the freedom to forget about public opinion once in a while would do much to restore the voters' faith in the integrity of their representatives. Similarly, few would quarrel with the success of much of the New Deal--and even some of the Great Society--and many of our problems do require national solutions. But they don't necessarily demand complicated, comprehensive solutions.

"If I could get legislators to do just one thing, it would be to take a political Hippocratic oath," the author Alan Ehrenhalt says. "First, do no harm. Just attack things you can do something about." Theodore Lowi concurs. "Congress should narrow its agenda to a few things it knows how to do," he says. "And it should quit writing these large bills which pretend to address a problem but really don't, and create unforeseen problems in their wake."

Those steps alone, it seems, would require a shift in sentiment, in both parties and in the nation at large, not simply because they might mean the passage of fewer complicated entitlement programs for the middle class, but also because they would spell the end of the notion that there can somehow be a risk-free society with a government solution to every problem. The public and the press would also be required to re-evaluate whether a buzz of legislative activity really constitutes a "golden age," and whether gridlock--which often means doing nothing because nothing can be done or because we don't know what to do--is always such a terrible thing. Yet such a change would even benefit liberalism. Congress would do less, but might well do better what it did, thereby increasing confidence in the national government generally. And the body might then have the will, occasionally, to act in the national interest by expanding government, even if that meant temporarily rejecting public opinion.


Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1995; Too Representative Government; Volume 275, No. 5 pages 92-106.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture