What’s the matter with Congress?
Like Bessette, James Wallner, a senior fellow of the R Street Institute, observes in The Death of Deliberation (2013) that, through most of the 20th century, this is precisely what happened. In the House, membership on policy committees remained relatively static over several congresses, meaning that the members of those committees were able to specialize in, and engage in effective oversight of, the programs under their committee’s jurisdiction. Measures emerging from committees used to receive deference from members when they reached the floor. The chairs of committees were selected by seniority and became “barons” controlling their specific areas of policy, governed only loosely by a “feudal” Speaker who did not infringe their autonomy. These committees were the locus of deliberation until relatively recently. In the Senate, as in the House, committee chairs dominated the agenda until the 1960s. Norms of collegiality and deference, rather than strict rules, prevented senators from stepping on their colleagues’ toes.
James Wallner describes similar trends in the post-reform Senate. Although some leaders (especially Lyndon Johnson) played a stronger role in directing the Senate prior to the 1980s, the majority leader did not emerge as a strong leader until the ’80s and ’90s. Between the textbook Senate and the emergence of party leadership, the Senate operated under a “collegial” model, according to Wallner, in which all members were free to offer amendments to legislation and debate on the floor. The passage of the Clean Air Act amendments in 1990 by a wide bipartisan majority, after both parties offered dozens of amendments to the bill, reflected this collegial environment. As Wallner sees it, over time growing polarization forced the Senate to move to a “majoritarian” environment in which the majority leader blocked senators from offering amendments and moved to end debate quickly—methods utilized extensively by Harry Reid (D-NV) when he served as the majority leader from 2007 to 2015. This is the Senate we are accustomed to seeing: an increasingly majoritarian institution where filibusters are common and the majority party tries to govern without letting the minority party play much of a role.
Wallner argues, however, that the Senate operates under a different model: that of “structured consent” rather than straightforward majoritarianism. In order to accomplish anything in this environment, the majority and minority leaders confer, negotiate, and broker a deal before debate or deliberation even occurs. Decisions are made behind the scenes and rank-and-file members are increasingly shut out of the process, but it does allow the Senate to remain productive in a difficult political environment without resorting to the so-called “nuclear option” to end debate. Wallner argues that this is a dangerous tradeoff: “the contemporary Senate may be viewed as broken. While it continues to produce significant legislation at relatively consistent rates…it has done so largely at the expense of the institution’s deliberative function.” Deliberation in the Senate is replaced by party leaders brokering compromises. According to this account, not merely the Senate but also the House is governed today by centralized party leadership rather than committees or rank-and-file members.
Wallner acknowledges similar constraints on party leaders’ power in the Senate. The structured-consent model he describes, in which the majority and minority leader work things out behind the scenes, “is dependent on relatively cohesive parties, as well as majority and minority leaders that are capable of mollifying the demands of their most ideological members without upsetting their [own] negotiations.” But McConnell seems increasingly incapable of holding his own ranks together, and the structured-consent model seems unsustainable as a result of the forces that incentivize members to go their own way.