"Dysfunctional Congress"

This weekend I went to a one-day university and saw four different lectures (as usual, about half were good, one was OK, and one was a soft-of WTF).  In one of those lectures, a Brown professor kept talking about Congress being "dysfunctional".

It strikes me that it is time to demand that people define what they mean by this.  A lot of people, I think, would answer that they mean that Congress is dysfunctional because it has not passed X, where X is immigration reform or climate change legislation or a repeal of Obamacare or a list of many other things.  But in these cases, I am not sure it is fair to say that lack of Congressional action really represents dysfunctionality when the public itself is sharply and somewhat evenly divided on the issues themselves.

No one can best me in a competition of disdain for elected officials.  But I am always suspicious that folks using the whole dysfunctional Congress meme are really using it as a proxy for a strong desire to keep expanding government.  After all, are we really facing a shortage of laws that Congress desperately needs to address?  Is Congress somehow greedily hording laws in a time of need?

In the spirit of defining terms, I will say what I think is dysfunctional about Congress:  When it fails to fulfill its Constitutionally-mandated roles.  It is not required to pass immigration legislation, but it is required to pass a budget and give up and down votes on appointments.  Neither of these tasks have been accomplished very well over the last few years.   Again, Congress is not required to give the President what he wants (as the media seems to imply, at least when the President is a Democrat), but they are required to pass some sort of budget and take a vote in a reasonably timely manner on appointments.


  1. J Calvert:

    I had this exact same discussion with a friend last week, and used the exact same example. I can't stand the Continuing Resolution (CR) process and how it has been abused in the budget battles over the last 6 years. Substituting CRs for an actual budget continues the congressional stalemate and prevents meaningful compromise, while allowing both parties to claim the opponent is to blame.

    Legislation is about the art of compromise. I may have not liked Tip O'Niell, Dan Rostenkowski or Jim Wright, but they could make deals and move on. Nancy Pelosi and especially Harry Reid are incapable of compromise.

  2. Onlooker from Troy:

    Exactly right. Or more to the point it means that they aren't doing what that person (usually a lefty) thinks they should do and therefore their president should get much more power to do "the right things for us", and so on.

    But there's no rational discussion to be had about it with those people. Anymore than in any other area, as they aren't open to it and can't/won't reason from first principles.

  3. Nimrod:

    The idea that "congress is dysfunctional" is being propagated by the White House because the next logical step is to promote the idea that "congress won't do anything, so laws will now be made by presidential edict." This is already happening and its a very very bad trend.

    People are beginning to buy into this idea that some sort of benign dictator can solve all their problems. Unfortunately history has shown that benign dictators don't have benign effects. There are computational limits on the ability of one person, or even one small group of people, to make optimal decisions. This is why modern governments have legislative bodies and use markets; there's literally just not enough CPU power directed at solving these problems otherwise.

  4. mesaeconoguy:

    Leftist academics (redundant) deem Congress “dysfunctional” because they have not passed the regressive leftist totalitarian agenda in toto, and without objection.

    Congress is a reflection of the voting public, as designed, and reflects the increasingly deep political divisions in larger society.

    Ignorant academics (again, redundant) suffer from all manner of biases, and believe that they are the anointed who should be in charge of society.

    Thus the exponential growth in the government-academic complex.

  5. jdgalt:

    Let's be fair. The Constitution doesn't actually require Congress to do either of those things. All it says about a budget is that Congress has the sole power to appropriate funds, and that bills appropriating funds for the military are limited to two years' duration.

    If we consider some federal spending to be "essential", we might suggest they enact some laws that result in small amounts of automatic spending each year unless changed by Congress. That way gridlock wouldn't result in a shutdown (though the courts in practice have let some functions keep operating anyway). But if it's up to me, I would discourage any action of this type, and keep the ability to shut down as much of government as possible. Because most of what Congress spends our money on is bad.

    As for votes on appointments, I suggest amending the Constitution so that un-voted-on appointments automatically take effect after some reasonable time, say 21 days excluding Sundays (the existing time limit for the president to sign or veto a bill before it becomes law without his signature). There's no need to make an exception for when Congress isn't in session because then he can already make appointments without their approval.

    The bottom line, though, is that Congress doesn't have to act on just about anything, and we will often be better off if they don't. We have too many laws already, and they waste so much money every year even Carl Sagan can no longer describe it. So let them snooze as long as they like.

  6. jdgalt:

    Amen. And the Weimar Republic showed us what happens if we let a president make laws by edict when Congress can't agree.

  7. David:

    I would describe a congress as functional if it passed a budget, and when issues were brought up (eg immigration), they were discussed and voted up or down.

  8. mogden:

    Given that 99% of what Congress does is actively harmful, unethical, and unlawful, the more dysfunctional it is, the better.

  9. Arrian:

    I'm a big fan of the filibuster and "Congressional gridlock." I don't think any non-trivial matter should be resolved by a simple majority vote. Instead of thinking of a filibuster as failing to get an up or down vote, think of the filibuster as a vote requiring a supermajority getting a down vote.

    There, dysfunction fixed.

    50% is a horrible bar for things that can massively change peoples' lives, that way lies the execution of Socrates. If you can't come up with a 60% supermajority, you don't _really_ need to pass that law. I want my lawmakers to be conservative when it comes to making changes that affect hundreds of millions of people.

  10. MJ:

    He'll blame the Jews?