Why Congress

Image of Why Congress
Release Date: 
February 1, 2023
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by: 

“provides a compelling argument for the importance of our legislative branch and how it can reassert its relevance in the 21st century.”

What is Congress good for? No doubt many Americans have asked themselves that question in the last 20 years as they have witnessed extensive sound byte wars and watched the dysfunction of a body seemingly not able to accomplish anything for the American people it professes to serve. Author Philip Wallach, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has written a very timely book examining in a skeptical yet hopeful manner how the legislative branch of our government can revitalize its role in governing our country and, most importantly, regain some of the respect it has lost with many Americans.

As the author notes, the Constitution begins with Congress, outlining the powers enumerated to it and enshrining it as the dominant governing body for the newly United States. The plans of the Founding Fathers in numerous Federalist Papers are also discussed to show how the framers intended Congress to exercise particular control over the budget and spending of the government. The author then examines two case studies highlighting where the legislative process worked, even with often contentious debate—World War II and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The role of Congress in World War II was particularly illuminating as most traditional political histories of the war emphasize the actions of FDR and the enormous bureaucracy built during the war to essentially nationalize the economy on a war footing. Although Congress generally agreed with most of FDR’s plans, and avoided interfering with strategy making, they were not just a rubber stamp and wartime coalitions of Republicans and conservative Democrats often teamed up to deflect some of FDR’s more egregious efforts to expand his New Deal policies and maintain a centralized economy as the war ended.

The ability of Congress to deal with huge expenditures to prosecute the war while trying to ensure an equality of burden for all Americans was also a notable accomplishment, and they were even able to keep the all-important Manhattan Project secret while funding millions of dollars to the eventual success of building an atomic bomb.

The Civil Rights Act, one of the more contentious pieces of legislation of the last 50 years was probably the finest example of the process of coalition building, debate, filibustering, and finally compromising to successfully enact legislation that eventually had widespread support. While segregation did not end easily, it did end without the predicted violence many segregationists threatened, and the author maintains this acceptance was because the complicated legislative process was followed and all voices were heard, even the ones that were not popular.

Congress since then, particularly in the last 20 years, has abrogated much of its authority to the Executive Branch, and often to the Judicial Branch, as it has passed murky and ill-defined legislation and then counted on the federal bureaucracy to implement it according to the political winds of the day.

The author uses as example the issues concerning the environment and immigration to highlight the inability of Congressional leadership, either Republican or Democrat, to build coalitions and allow full debate to arrive at some consensus and accomplish difficult yet necessary legislation to solve the more significant issues of the day. The ability to complete Congress’s number one responsibility, passing a budget, has now become a yearly cycle of threats of government shutdown leading to endless continuing resolutions that avoid all responsibility for taxation and spending and essentially have put the country on a budget autopilot for the last quarter century.

After reviewing the current disfunction of Congress, the author then examines three potential scenarios for where the legislative branch could be when it achieves its 250th anniversary in 2039. None of these scenarios is particularly satisfactory, but they do offer some compelling alternatives and raise some interesting questions. 

Should the House of Representatives be expanded beyond its current number of 435? What would be the role of a revived Congressional Committee structure, once the backbone of nearly all House and Senate activity? Can technology improve how Congress conducts its business? What would be the role of an improved Congressional staff? All of these questions are very thought provoking and at the end of the book, the reader is left asking why can’t Congress function better? Are partisan politics more important than solving, as much as possible, the country’s most significant problems?

Many books have been written lately about the Executive and Judicial branch of our government. Wallach has turned his attention to the most maligned and misunderstood branch and provides a compelling argument for the importance of our legislative branch and how it can reassert its relevance in the 21st century.