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Has Our Legislative Branch Lost Its Institutional Bearings?

Longtime Capitol Hill watchers lament the dearth of institutionalists in Congress today. This is not to suggest the place once teemed with folks who thought, fought and taught about the vital role of Congress as a policymaking body, as a check on the executive branch, and as a key to public trust and confidence in government. [IMGCAP(1)]

If you press these observers they’d admit that even in “the good old days” there probably were only two dozen or so staunch defenders of Congress at any one time. Today, however, it’s hard to identify even a small handful.

While I am not prepared to weigh in with a political science model that will empirically demonstrate the decline of institutionalism (and aren’t you grateful for that?), I will ruminate over what this is about and why it matters.

Congressional institutionalism is not merely an emotional attachment to place, like the thrill of seeing the Capitol Dome lit up at night. Nor is it, in the extreme, the gung-ho attitude of defending “my Congress, right or wrong,” whatever the cost. Instead, it is what George Mason University political scientist Hugh Heclo calls “an appreciation for institutional values that works from the inside out” by “living in commitment to the ends for which organization occurs rather than to an organization as such.”

In other words, it’s not about blind loyalty to the institution but rather an “enduring loyalty to the purpose or purposes that lie behind doing the job in the first place.” That is discerned through the authority and precedents that have been handed down. To underscore this point, Heclo quotes Goethe: “What you have received as heritage, take now as task and thus you will make it your own.”

While it’s easy to pinpoint the authority of Congress through the Constitution as flowing from the people, and its purpose “to provide for the common defense and general welfare,” it is more difficult to identify and vivify those institutional norms and values that should animate Members in their daily behavior. My thoughts first turn to Thomas Jefferson, who compiled his “A Manual of Parliamentary Practice” for the Senate based on British parliamentary law. He emphasized in his introduction the importance of adhering to a fixed body of rules “as a check and control on the actions of the majority,” both to protect the rights of minorities and to enable the body to function in a dignified, orderly and effective manner.

At the heart of parliamentary institutionalism is the need for a regularity and order in proceeding to permit the body to carry out its core lawmaking function with a view to doing the public good. This entails much more than simply channeling public opinion into laws. Instead, as James Madison explained in Federalist No. 10, it means refining and enlarging the public’s views through the medium of a body of representatives “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of the country,” and whose decisions “are more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.” In short, it is what we expect of collective deliberation.

We have heard a lot of talk from both parties in recent years about the need to “restore the regular order,” without giving much thought to what that really means other than following the rules and the normal, legislative process. Yet it goes much deeper. The underlying purpose of those rules is to permit a deliberative search for the best interests of the country without the distractions and diversions of personal animosities or partisan subterfuge.

That is why some of the elements of parliamentary law Jefferson considered important were a respect for and understanding of the powers and prerogatives of Congress and a willingness to defend them against assaults from internal and external forces; a proper respect for other Members during debate by refraining from engaging in personalities or impugning motives; a responsibility to remain pertinent to the subject under debate; and a respect for the authority of the chair in maintaining order.

All these seem to be common-sense rules of thumb. And yet, how often do Members dismiss them as irrelevant to the times, without understanding why they are still essential to maintaining the dignity, decorum and respect of the body?

Both parties have been guilty in recent years of bending or breaking such rules to score temporary partisan points without regard for how they might be defiling their own chamber. For example, Members have engaged in offering obviously non-germane amendments or other inappropriate motions, then appealing the rulings of the chair, no matter how obviously correct, just to force a roll call they then can falsely claim to be a substantive policy vote. Such behavior should be condemned by leaders of both parties as damaging to the institution.

Another grievance I hear from Members is that their colleagues no longer have the courtesy to yield to others for a question over a debating point or factual claim — something we once associated with real debate. Members seem more intent today on delivering their set pieces for the TV cameras and constituents than they are in allowing their arguments to be challenged or discussed. And yet, this is the essence of deliberation — a reasoning together about the nature of a problem and its solution.

Congressional institutionalism is in short supply today but not all that difficult to reclaim. It doesn’t require that Members be steeped in history and precedents. It simply demands that they think and act more like Members of a great deliberative body. In that way they will be fulfilling their living commitment to the purposes for which Congress was founded and they were elected.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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