Arcane rules in both the Senate and the House, combined with partisan gridlock, make our Congress woefully ineffective.
Our Government was purposely designed to provide for competing interests, checks and balances, and representation of minority views. At its most basic level, this includes the federal system itself, in which governmental powers are divided between states and the Federal Government. At the federal level, legislative powers are vested in a bicameral legislature, both of whom need to agree on a proposed law, with an additional legislative role for the president, who can either sign or veto a bill passed by both houses of Congress, and a final review role for the Supreme Court, who can reject a law that it deems in violation of the Constitution.
Given the many intentional, constitutional obstacles to passing a law, our Congress has nevertheless opted to adopt several additional obstacles, which are unnecessary from a constitutional standpoint, and which serve to only further slowdown or block Congressional action. Proponents argue that these extra limits are necessary to protect minority rights (in the case of the Senate’s filibuster and other procedural roadblocks) or a minority of the majority party (in the case of certain House rules). However, the simple fact is that our Congress has become muscle-bound and incapable of acting on even the most basic functions of governance.
When we hear that Americans are fed up with Congress, one of the principle complaints is that Congress cannot act, cannot actually do anything. Congress seems to spend all its time in endless arguing while legislating little of substance.
At the same time, often because Congress is unable or unwilling to act, presidents of both parties have issued Executive Orders to accomplish things that Congress won’t. Presidents will always claim that they are acting within their constitutional authority or they are merely providing the necessary administrative details to implement laws that Congress has already passed. Be that as it may, we have witnessed the gradual accumulation of presidential power and authority at the expense of Congress, with loud complaints by whichever political party does not currently hold the White House.
So the challenge for us is twofold: 1) change the rules of the House and Senate to force Congress to function or at least reduce their many excuses for failing to function; and 2) restore some balance between the president and Congress by giving Congress a role in the issuance of Executive Orders.
Even though Americans are disgusted by the performance of our Congress, we seem to have little stomach for doing anything about it. Many seem to think that Congress will ultimately work it out for themselves, or they seem to think that we the people are powerless.
We are misguided if we think that we can leave it to Congress to figure it out and fix it. Legislatures sometimes die of self-inflicted wounds. A most famous example occurred in the Sejm (Parliament) of Poland in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Sejm at that time had a rule called the liberum veto which allowed any single senator to veto and thus kill all the legislation passed by the Sejm in its current session, thereby causing its dissolution. Poland’s kings needed to raise armies to fight invaders, but a single senator, sometimes bribed by foreign officials, nullified every Sejm session that attempted to pass the needed laws. As a result, Poland had no army to defend itself, the country was invaded and partitioned by its neighbors (Russia, Austria, and Prussia), and Poland ceased to exist as a separate nation from 1795 until the end of World War I. Throughout Europe, the term Polish parliament came to be a synonym for inept government. With no major legislation and very little legislation of any kind, our last Congress was about as inept as that 18th century Polish parliament; and like the Sejm of that time, Congress better get its act together soon, before it just withers away into total irrelevance.