To what extent is Congress the broken branch of American politics?

In recent years Americans’ opinion of Congress has reached historic lows (BBC News Online: 22.11.2011). It is this worrying indictment which has led Thomas Mann to assert that Congress is the broken branch of the US tripartite political system (Mann: 2006). Aside from this lack of confidence in the collective body of their elected representatives, which some Americans have condemned as wasteful and self-serving, there is also uncertainty as to whether it is fulfilling its constitutional role (Storey: 2007: 271). It was intended that it should operate alongside the other political branches – the executive and the judiciary – to enact legislation and keep in check the other component parts of government. Today its legislative role has largely been passed to the executive, though it maintains responsibility for revenue raising measures. This essay will argue that whilst some aspects of Congress might indeed by condemned as broken, it is still performing, with success, a variety of tasks that it has been charged with. In order to demonstrate this, the two reasons for Congress’ supposed failure outlined above will be examined one by one and balanced against counter-arguments. This approach will suggest that in many ways it is functioning competently and in accordance with the role it has been assigned.
When devising the Constitution the Founding Fathers bestowed upon Congress the task of ‘keeping the other branches of government within their constitutional boundaries’. Integral to this was the forging of new policies. As time has progressed it has become apparent that the executive branch of government is capable of performing this role far more effectively (Storey: 271). In contrast Congress has the reputation of inhibiting legislative progress because it has a complicated and time consuming method of processing bills (Mckay: 2009: 194). This issue stems from its practice of referring proposed legislation to its system of standing and select committees. These committees, consisting of a small number of Members of Congress who debate and investigate various specialist matters passed to them, are party-controlled and effectively set the policy agenda by having the power to bury bills. Less than 10% of bills submitted for their consideration make it to the next stage of the approval process (McKay: 194) In addition each bill has to be handed over to both the Senate and the House of Representatives with their own individual committees and votes for it to pass through before becoming law.

The difficulties presented by this extensive process are compounded by the ascendancy of partisan politics which dominates contemporary Congresses and the committee system. Cross-party negotiation and deal breaking has become increasingly difficult and protracted because both the political ideology of the Democrats and the Republicans has polarized. (Mckay: 196,209) The impact of this on the legislative process was keenly seen during the Autumn of 2011 when the US Federal deficit threatened to exceed its $14t ceiling. Quick and decisive action was required to introduce cost-cutting measures but the stark policy differences between the Democrats and the Republicans meant that the joint-committee who had been assigned the task of recommending a solution to this pending problem failed to come to any agreement, placing their country on the brink of financial disaster (BBC News Online: 22.11.2011).
Conversely, Congress’ limited influence the legislative agenda and the fact it makes lawmaking difficult is, Storey argues, constitutionally appropriate. This is because the Founding Fathers would approve of legislative barriers, as part of Congress’ constitutional role is to ‘limit the overall scope of the national government, including the influence of Congress itself’ (Storey: 271). It follows that the more laws there are, the more responsibilities the government acquires (if only to administer them). The fundamental purpose of the division of political power between the federal and state governments, and between the presidency, Congress and the judiciary, is designed to keep in check the authority of each one of these governmental components. Yet, it has been the trend for the federal government to expand in scope and this undermines the carefully designed, constitutional balance of the political system (Storey: 272)
To label Congress ‘broken’ on the grounds of constitutional failings is, however, to overlook the role it plays in overseeing the activities of the executive. Storey champions this aspect of Congress which he believes has been effective (Storey: 277). There is certainly evidence to suggest that in recent years this is indeed the case. Following the 2006 elections and the new Democratic majority in Congress there was an upsurge in the number of investigations held into potential presidential abuses of power (Mann: 2010: 123). It is important though when putting this argument forward in defence of Congress’ ‘broken’ nature to recognize that oversight is task which has its own limitations. Congress still have difficulty obtaining from the Whitehouse the various documentation and witnesses they need to carry out their investigations thoroughly, and the number of hearings conducted is minimal (McKay: 200).
Crucial in conditioning the low opinion poll results received by Congress is the view that it serves interest groups, lobbyists and members’ self-interest before the needs of the nation (Burnstein: 2009: 164). Additionally, earmarks, the allocation of funding for constituency-based projects, have soared. This is illustrated by the 2005 peak of 13,492 schemes which amounted to almost $16b worth of federal money (Mann: 125). Whilst the success most Senators have in directing funds towards their own districts indicates there is mutual interest in letting this practice continue, the perception held by many Americans is that this preoccupation with winning lucrative contracts is promotes wasteful spending (Storey: 272). This is because earmarks have a reputation for encouraging pointless expenditure, an example of which is the Alaskan “bridge to nowhere” (Mann: 125).
However, this characterisation of Congress as a “market for legislation” and the notion that Members of Congress work on behalf of lobbyist is, Burnstein argues, fundamentally wrong. Whilst not denying that they do listen to the wealthy members of their districts, or that they hold talks with interest groups, they themselves are running Congress, not the people who attempt to sway them (Burnstein: 164-172). To support this assertion Burnstein cites the research of political science and economic academics which have repeatedly reached the same conclusion – that campaign contributions or lobbying has little influence on policy (Burnstein: 165). There are several likely reasons why this is the case including the fact that lobbyists have limited access to members of Congress who in fact generally vote in accordance with their own political ideology. Furthermore, even if lobbyists succeeded in bringing Congress men and women round to their cause, the number of swayed members is usually too small to radically reshape the outcome of important votes (Burnstein: 66). Given these hurdles to buying policy decisions why do Americans believe Congress is so willing to be bribedFor Burnstein the answer is simple; ‘people tend to remember the egregious but atypical cases of apparent influence’ (Burnstein: 166).
This certainly seems to be a viable assessment of the situation because Congress, in actuality, accurately reflects the mood and desires of the nation – a result of a close congressperson-constituency relationship (McKay: 208). Furthermore, Congress has taken marked steps to rid itself of the influence of lobbyists. After the Democrats won the Congress majority in 2006 they prioritized ethics, lobbying and earmark reform. The Democratic Party rule packages which ensued restricted use of corporate jets and privately financed travel, placed a ban on gifts and meals paid for by lobbyists, forced disclosure of the campaign finance activities of lobbyists and promoted earmark transparency. Two weeks later the Senate passed its own version of this rule package which was soon followed by a Bill in the House of Representatives. Therefore, to levy a charge of corruption against Congress is somewhat unjustified, though that is not to deny financial enticements are accepted on occasions and, as the pervasiveness of earmarks suggests, the self-interest of constituencies worked towards.
Having outlined the dominant criticisms which surround Congress’ characterization as ‘the broken branch of American politics’, it is evident that it is neither as corrupt nor as inept as this statement first implies. Undoubtedly Congress does have its limitations. It is open to the influence of lobbyists and there is strong evidence that its members are keen to secure investment in their own districts at the expense of the federal budget. Its partisan politics inhibits the legislative process as policy agreement is hard to negotiate. On the other hand Congress has taken steps to rectify some of these issues, especially regarding its own ethical operation. Its role as overseer is one it takes seriously and this aspect of its constitutional assignment, though limited, is far from being broken. In general Americans have a very positive attitude towards their own members which implies that as representatives, individual Congresspersons are performing well (Mckay: 209). Where the real problem lies is in its deep and deepening political divisions. This renders Congress inept at functioning as a unified body and acting in the national interest, something which has a critical impact on its ability to respond to pressing situations.
BBC News Online, ‘US ‘super-committee’ fails to reach deficit deal’, 22.11.2011 accessed [26.03.2012]
Burnstein, P., ‘Is Congress really for sale?’, in R. M. Valelly (ed.), Princeton readings in American politics, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2009
Mann, T., The broken branch: How congress is failing America and how to get it back on track, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006
Mann, T., ‘Congress’, in G. Pelle, C. Bailey and B. Cain (eds.), Developments in American Politics 6, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2010
McKay, D., American society and politics, 7th ed., Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2009
Storey, W., US Government and politics, Edinburgh University Press, 2007

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