July 9, 2023


The Triumph of Wilson's Vision of Congress Over Madison's Has Polarized America: a review of Why Congress by Philip Wallach (DANIEL STID, JUL 8, 2023, The UnPopulist)

Even as these success stories were playing out, however, Wilsonians were gaining the upper hand in the realms of ideas and practical politics. In the aftermath of World War II, liberal and reform-minded academics working under the auspices of the American Political Science Association issued a landmark report entitled "Toward A More Responsible Two-Party System." Published in 1950, the report represented a frontal assault on the Madisonian Congress and the heterogenous, coalitional parties that operated within it.

National Democratic Party officials, and a growing caucus of liberal Democratic legislators, seized upon the report's recommendations. Over the next three decades, they steadily put its prescription into practice, nationalizing the Democratic Party and making its congressional majorities more consistently liberal, that is, "responsible."

At the outset of Why Congress, Wallach introduces a pendulum framework for Congress that suggests that its internal structure swings over time, often to the point of diminishing returns, between "openness" and "tight control." The goal is to find and stay at a happy medium--not easy to do given it is a moving target. Alas, this framework is less helpful for understanding the pivotal developments Wallach tracks in the Democratic-controlled Congress of the 1970s. The opening and controlling impulses played out simultaneously, as liberal activists among the Democratic rank and file and their caucus leaders mutually reinforced each other's efforts to gain more power at the expense of the more conservative committee chairmen.

Republicans soon followed suit. GOP minorities in Congress, increasingly enlivened by Ronald Reagan's conservatism, and finding themselves marginalized by the more coherently liberal and forcefully led Democratic majorities, likewise turned on the Madisonian aspects of Congress. Growing numbers of GOP lawmakers preferred the Wilsonian ideal in which ideological parties drew sharp distinctions with each other and sought clear mandates from voters. By the 1980s, this burgeoning faction had found a quirky but relentless standard bearer in Newt Gingrich.

Ever since, Wilsonians have prevailed over Madisonians in both congressional parties. Wallach describes the resulting standoff as "the triumph of partisan posturing over politics." He uses the example of immigration policy to highlight how, in the new environment, lawmakers have found it more difficult to forge legislative solutions to pressing national problems. And try as they might--and have--presidents, the Supreme Court, and state governors cannot resolve such problems in the face of congressional inaction. Indeed, their misguided and unilateral efforts to do so have only served to amplify the polarization that makes congressional policy settlements difficult to achieve in the first place.

Even when Congress manages to act decisively, as it did during COVID, it does so without the free-wheeling and extended debate needed to surface and resolve dilemmas posed by competing priorities. Legislation without deliberation cannot begin to reconcile lawmakers on the losing side--and those they represent--to the enacted policies, a legitimacy gap that widened as the pandemic wore on. As Wallach laments, "we needed leadership, and they gave us cash."

The assessment offered in Why Congress is sobering about how far the institution has fallen. Yet Wallach is hopeful, resolute even, about the possibility of its revival.

Posted by at July 9, 2023 7:38 AM