A time to build Congress
Gallup polls show public approval of Congress remains around 20 percent. The dissatisfaction also is widespread within the Capitol. “This place sucks,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D, WV, vented not long ago. Committee chairmen, who once ruled the Hill as minor despots, are quitting in despair and frustration. Major problems, like immigration and trillion dollar budget deficits, are festering.
Typically, the blame for Congress’ shortcoming is framed in terms of individuals or the parties. How often have we heard that things would be so much better if we just got rid of Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnell, or if we threw out one party or another. Indubitably, individuals matter. When House Democrats started their time as majority by pushing H.R. 1 they did governance no favors. And when Senate Republicans unite behind a strategy to use more of the Senate’s valuable time to approve judges than to enact legislation, well, they own that choice.
But, Congress’ troubles go way beyond individuals and parties. Our national legislature’s ills are part of a larger problem: weakened institutions.
Institutions, explains Yuval Levin in A Time to Build (Basic Books), are “the durable forms of our common life. They are the frameworks and structures of what we do together.” Human coordination requires institutions that channel individual energies toward collaborative actions. Healthy institutions shape us by giving us roles to play and responsibilities to execute. When one becomes a parent, for example, one assumes duties like getting up in the night for feedings.
Levin notes that many of America’s institutions —the family, the media, our colleges and universities, and our governance system— have been buffeted for decades. Their weakened condition leaves us less able to work through them to solve problems and resolve differences.
Weak institutions also are less formative, which results in them becoming platforms for individual performances. Leaders of faith institutions, academics, and reporters increasingly want to be celebrities, the faces of their institutions, who will spout off daily. One only need view the Twitter feeds of national reporters who go beyond their duties to report facts to proffer hot takes that debase their credibility as the unbiased scribes of the first rough drafts of history.
This tendency to behave performatively is acute in Congress, where today’s legislators behave as if maximizing their Instagram followers and Fox News appearances is why Americans pay them salaries. In the old parlance, congressional show horses have become far more common than congressional workhorses. Particularly pernicious, Levin notes, is the tendency for legislators to speak of Congress as if they were “outsiders commenting on Congress, rather than like insiders participating in it.” Growing one’s own brand by sullying the institution has somehow become considered normal, and words outrank deeds. This institutional demolition, Levin rightly observes, is to our collective detriment.
The model of leadership-dominated chambers contributes to the congressional circus. If a legislator cannot expect his efforts to do oversight and shepherd bills along or even get a debate about them to amount to anything, it is no surprise that he or she will choose to behave performatively. Transparency reforms, Levin writes, likely have gone too far. With cameras omnipresent, is it any wonder politicians relentlessly play to them? Thanks to technology, legislators can create viral moments and re-election ads by caterwauling and gasbagging more easily than ever before.
Fixing Congress is no easy matter. For years, many of us congressional reformers have urged the institution to invest in itself. Governance in the 21st century is an immense and complicated task, which requires new resources, processes, and reorganization. But this sort of capacity is not enough. Congressional rejuvenation also demands elected officials and their staff to reorient their thinking, and to more regularly ask themselves Levin’s instructive question: “Given my role, how should I act?”