In honor of Independence Day in the United States, we asked some of our influential American history and politics VSI authors to ask each other some pointed questions related to significant matters in America. Their passionate responses have inspired a four day series leading up to America’s 237th birthday. Today Donald A. Ritchie, author of The US Congress: A Very Short Introduction shares his answers. Yesterday L. Sandy Maisel shared his view and check back tomorrow to hear from Charles O. Jones.
Richard M. Valelly (American Politics VSI) asked: Two prominent political scientists who have long observed Congress, namely Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, have forcefully argued that Congress is a broken branch. They point to procedural disorder, inability to complete the required agenda of Congress, and soap-box expressiveness among members as just a few facets of an institution in crisis. What’s the strongest counter-argument to this view in your opinion?
Donald A. Ritchie: The same criticism could have been made by most Presidents of the United States going back to George Washington. Indicating more continuity than change, the leadership of both parties has operated in similar fashion for the last generation, much to the displeasure of the minority in the House and the majority in the Senate. The constitutional system of division of powers long ago was described as “an invitation to struggle.” Despite more than two centuries of struggle, we tend to forget how divisive and derogatory national politics were in the past.
L. Sandy Maisel (American Political Parties and Elections VSI) asked: Should political leaders be judged by their ability to achieve compromise solutions to divisive issues or by their willingness to stand on principle, rather than to compromise?
Donald A. Ritchie: Whenever anyone criticized him for compromising too readily, the “Master of the Senate,” Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, invariably replied: “I got the best bill I could with the votes that I had.” Legislative compromise isn’t a goal in itself but a means to achieve consensus, to gather enough votes to get the bill passed in the House and Senate, and pass muster with the president and the courts. If leaders do not seek compromise, it’s difficult to see what they could accomplish. Alternatives to compromise might be a major crisis that forces cooperation, or some groundswell of public opinion one way or the other that registers with members of both parties. Those alternatives have happened–but not often.
L. Sandy Maisel: At other times in our nation’s history when partisan rancor has dominated the policymaking process, what steps have leaders taken to move the national discussion forward?
Donald A. Ritchie: The best example is the person who ranks second only to George Washington in the paintings, statues, and busts throughout the US Capitol. You cannot walk far without encountering some depiction of Henry Clay. Although he was an overtly partisan Speaker of the House and a vigorous party leader in the Senate, and he caused his own share of political mischief, at pivotal moments in both Chambers he stepped forward to forge legislative compromises that surmounted political paralysis and kept the country together. He managed to combine partisanship with pragmatism and persuasion to get things done. Maybe all those likenesses will serve as reminders to his successors.
Charles O. Jones (The American Presidency VSI) asked: Conventional wisdom has it the out-party does not have either a single leader, or even, nationally, a means to integrate policy proposals. Yet today the Republican Party is challenged to have an “agenda” akin to a national platform. Is this a change or merely a media illusion?
Donald A. Ritchie: Parliamentary governments have the advantage of operating with shadow cabinets and alternative party agendas that make it possible for the in-comers to replace the out-goers as soon as the election results are in. In the American system, presidents have acted as national party leader while the opposition has no equivalent. But the party out of power can compensate by responding to shifting national opinions, galvanizing those who are angriest over current events or policies. That has helped the opposition party gain seats in non-presidential election years–most notably in 1994 and 2010, when the party out of power regained the majority by creating national platforms.
Charles O. Jones: What has been the effect on the congressional committees of having outside “gangs” and/or public agenda campaigns by presidents? Immigration being the most recent case, Social Security for Bush 43 (but there are many such).
Donald A. Ritchie: During this Congress there have been wistful calls for a return to “regular order,” partly in reaction to the “gangs” of like-minded legislators drafting bills outside of committees. The advantage of a committee bill, produced by regular order is that it has gone through an exacting review that has achieved some common ground through negotiations. A gang of 12 senators promoted immigration reform in 2007, but faced a barrage of amendments on the floor and ultimately failed to achieve cloture. Senator Arlen Specter regretted that the bill had not gone through a “tough and laborious” committee markup to broaden and shore up its support. But there have also been times when a committee stood as the chief obstacle, particularly in 1964 when the Senate leadership avoided sending Civil Rights legislation to the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Mississippi’s James O. Eastland. The Civil Right Act was worked out by a bipartisan coalition of senators and their staffs, operating in the backrooms of the Senate Republican leader, Everett Dirksen, in close contact with President Lyndon Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. That gang produced one of the greatest legislative accomplishments of the twentieth century.
Donald A. Ritchie is Historian of the US Senate. His books include The US Congress: A Very Short Introduction; Our Constitution; The Oxford Guide to the United States Government; Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents; Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps; and Electing FDR: The New Deal Campaign of 1932.
The Very Short Introductions (VSI) series combines a small format with authoritative analysis and big ideas for hundreds of topic areas. Written by our expert authors, these books can change the way you think about the things that interest you and are the perfect introduction to subjects you previously knew nothing about. Grow your knowledge with OUPblog and the VSI series every Friday and like Very Short Introductions on Facebook. Read more in the Independence Day Q&A series.