Congress is a mess. It seems incapable of passing major legislation; it is divided by bitter animosities, held in almost universal contempt, and without an apparent plan to right itself. So goes the conventional wisdom, and, as of early 2018, it is mostly right.

But saying that Congress is troubled is very different from offering a clear direction for reform. Strikingly few people — including among our elected officials themselves — have a strong sense of what Congress’s institutional identity ought to be, or can say what a functional Congress ought to do in our 21st-century constitutional system. Taking up a long intellectual tradition running back through Woodrow Wilson, many intelligent observers have become convinced that Congress is obsolete, and the best thing it could do is just get out of the way.

Properly understood, however, Congress is no anachronism. The very features that would-be reformers find most exasperating — its messiness, balkiness, and cacophony — are those that render our representative legislature capable, in ways the other branches are not, of maintaining the bonds that hold together our sprawling republic. Critics of Congress are right to think that the legislature is a poor champion of efficient government relative to the executive branch, but they fail to realize the deeper goods and goals that representative government serves, namely promoting provisional coalition-building, generating trust, and creating real political accountability.

Congress can play these roles; indeed, for our constitutional system to function properly, it must do so. That is not to say that the institution is living up to its responsibilities today. Congress in our century has accelerated its own marginalization, which was already advanced. It is on its way to becoming little more than a forum in which policies negotiated elsewhere come to be formally enacted and low-impact criticisms of the ruling order are aired. Such a hollowing out of our first branch threatens an effective repudiation of the ideal of self-government, and it has the potential to generate (or exacerbate) an acute crisis of legitimacy. Congress clearly needs to revitalize itself. But that means it first needs to understand its own proper purpose again.

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Image credit: Andrea Izzotti