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The careful design of the United States federal government, as seen in our Constitution, has been admired and imitated throughout the world. Yet few Americans today think of their government as very much limited to matters of commerce, military defense, and constitutional law. Nor do we think of Congressmen as citizen-legislators, serving a few years in the nation’s capital and then returning home to the applause of grateful, armed, and vigilant fellow-citizens.
What has happened, since 1787?
Both our federal and state governments have been transformed in the past century. Although I have never worked in Congress, I have worked on a state legislative staff. At no time did I or anyone else on that staff participate in formulating the bills that became laws. Each of the two major parties had staffs in the state capital charged with that responsibility, augmented by the Office of Legislative Services, a state agency staffed by attorneys who reviewed all bills to ensure that the language was legally correct. ‘My’ state senator could propose an idea for a law, push to get it out of committee and onto the floor, but neither he nor his staff could have been seriously described as lawmakers.
We were nonetheless quite busy. Doing what? Typically, a constituent would call our office, in some degree of agitation over treatment received at the hands of a state administrative agency. My first task was to determine whether the complaint was likely to be legitimate, which it usually was. It transpired that, on occasion, unelected bureaucrats contract George III syndrome; symptoms included arbitrariness, injustice, and a touch of conceit. I would call the relevant state official (unlike the ordinary citizen, I had a handbook with their names, titles, and telephone numbers) and engage him or her in civil but firm conversation. I would often draft a letter to the relevant department head for the signature of ‘my’ senator, following up on that conversation, putting a sort of legislative-branch imprimatur upon the point. Given the fact that the legislature retained control of the purse-strings holding the funds which kept bureaucratic lights on, these efforts more often than not had the desired effect.
That this new non-legislative task now forms the core of what’s still called the legislative branch of the federal government–that the procedure I followed was very far from restricted to the government of just one state, or even all the states, but extends to Congress itself–was confirmed at that time by political scientist Morris P. Fiorina, who published the current edition of his book on the subject in 1989. Cogently titled Congress: Linchpin of the Washington Establishment, this study has deservedly become a standard text in colleges throughout the country.
Fiorina began by contrasting the rate of turnover in the biannual House election of the 19th century with that seen since the 1960s. In the 1880s and throughout that century, 40-50% of House members were replaced in each election. By the 1980s, the replacement rate had dropped to 15%. Being generally more elderly than their House colleagues, Senators die or resign more frequently, but that is no measure of voter sentiment, except in those cases when a Congressman may resign in anticipation of losing. So, for example, since 2008, 43% of Senate seats have ‘turned over,’ while the House has held steady.
Why the difference between the early Congress and the modern Congress?
Fiorina identified two principal causes. In the 19th-century House, committee assignments had been determined by the Speaker of the House, but Progressive-era reforms included a system of committee advancement based on seniority. Once years in service counted towards a member’s eventual chairmanship of committees and subcommittees, voters had a reason to keep ‘their guy’ in office; the more seniority he has, the more federal dollars he can direct to your district.
More important, however, was the Progressives’ expansion of the federal bureaucracy, which spiked upwards in the New Deal of the 1930s and then again with the Great Society programs of the 1960s. With a substantial and complex centralized bureaucracy now in place, combining legislative/regulatory, executive, and judicial/administrative-court powers within its agencies, Washington developed what the English call an “establishment”–a permanent ruling class. Legislators still legislated, but in a different way; they still did favors for constituents, but also in a different way.
The good-humored and slightly cynical Professor Fiorina described it in terms of a certain sort of clever circularity. Congress enacts a law, signed by the President and sometimes initiated by him, through his allies in Congress. Congress couches the law in vague, general terms. This leaves the bureaucracies with the task of filling in the regulatory details; since the proverbial devil happily resides in details, this makes many Washington establishmentarians very happy indeed. Here’s where you, the citizen, come in: lost in the bureaucratic maze, confused by paperwork, whipsawed (as you think) by persons you didn’t elect, who consequently care little for your plight.
Ah, but now you turn to your rescuer, your friendly, local Congressman. He (or rather his staff) intervene heroically on your behalf, setting things right, winning your approval and, more usefully still your vote and a reputation as one stand-up guy. To top it all off, your devoted representative can do this while inveighing against bureaucratic red tape and burdensome paperwork, imposed upon hardworking taxpayers by faceless and unfeeling bureaucrats. Thus Americans may detest “Congress” while re-electing their own Congressmen time and time again. They just can’t stand the other 434 members of the House. Or, as legendary House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill put it in the 1980s, “All politics is local.”
This new and symbiotic relationship between Congress and the Washington bureaucracy has resulted in larger Congressional and administrative staffs. For Congress, Fiorina cites statistics that are now familiar. As late as 1960, House members’ office staffs averaged nine positions. By 1977, that doubled. Senators had larger staffs to begin with, but these staffs doubled, too. Less lawmaking was going on, on the Hill, but more pork-barreling and a lot more “constituent casework” had been added.
In the past three decades, things have changed again, although not back to the old norm. Staffs have been reduced, now averaging 14 for House members, 34 for Senators. (One might observe that desktop computers have also made staffers more productive, with less need for typists and file clerks.) The real change isn’t in staffing, however, but in public opinion. All politics is still local when it comes to helping constituents with routine problems. But (as Fiorina himself has written in recent articles) our political life has become much more ‘national’ in terms of the issues addressed in local Congressional campaigns. Here, the turning point was the 1994 House election campaign engineered by House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich. Gingrich persuaded House Republicans to run on such national issues as welfare reform, term limits, tax cuts, and a balanced budget amendment. It worked; his party won enough seats to take the majority for the first time in 40 years.
Since then, a semi-‘nationalized’ electorate hasn’t so much “polarized” (meaning, separated itself into ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ factions, with no centrists). In Fiorina’s term, political and media elites have “sorted” themselves into such factions; there are no more conservative Democrats, and no more liberal Republicans. A few moderates remain, grabbing headlines on close votes, but Democrats like Senator Russell Long and Republicans like Jacob Javits no longer exist. A middle-of-the-road electorate has no comfortable home in either party.
Fiorina’s analysis should be supplemented by observing that the increase in national sentiment among voters and also ideological conflict among elites has sharpened in part because more people now question the post-World-War-II consensus, which consisted of broad approval of Progressive-style government policies. The difference between, say, Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election was a matter of degree. The difference between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale in 1988 was not, nor was the difference between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Reagan and Trump ran against the administrative state itself. That has caused the heirs of Progressivism to take their battle positions in defense of their status quo–nowhere more so than in the “linchpin of the Washington establishment.”
Another way of putting it is: For the first time in a century, Congress is getting interesting, again.
Will Morrisey is William and Patricia LaMothe Professor Emeritus of Politics at Hillsdale College, and is a Constituting America Fellow; his books include Self-Government, The American Theme: Presidents of the Founding and Civil War and The Dilemma of Progressivism: How Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson Reshaped the American Regime of Self-Government.
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