Our Hatable Congress

Jonathan Bernstein notes that congress is both despicable and regularly despised:

Everyone hated Congress in the pre-institutionalized Congress of the 19th century, when it was the House that had the filibuster; they hated Congress when it ran with ruthless efficiency under Speakers Reed and Cannon and during the early years of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency; they hated Congress during the New Deal; they hated it during the era of bipartisanship and the conservative coalition; they hated it when liberals took over and ended segregation and passed Medicare and Medicaid; they hated the reformed Congress of the 1970s; they hated it during the era of divided government; they hated it after the rise of the routine filibuster in the Senate; they hated it when the Gingrich Republicans took over; they hated it when the historic 111th passed tons of legislation. Trying to connect the American people’s deep and long-standing contempt for their Congress with any particular set or arrangements or procedures is a mug’s game.

This fact explains a lot about the practical operation of American politics. In theory, Congress is supposed to act as an important freedom-preserving “check” on executive power. In practice, everyone hates Congress so this doesn’t really work. If the President wants to challenge the prerogatives of some socially and politically powerful group of people or interests, then Congress is a highly efficacious tool for blocking reform. But if the executive branch wants to persecute the weak and the defenseless, then from Indian Removal to the Internment of the Japanese straight on through to detaining Bradley Manning without charges or trial, congress is almost invariably missing in action.

Meanwhile, as a smart member of congress about his or her ideas for tackling a tough problem and the solution almost invariably turns out to be using a commission of some sort to take congress out of the decision-making loop. And, indeed, most democracies have basically taken their national legislatures entirely out of the policymaking process—they simply appoint a cabinet and then wait for a new election.