Why Congress Is The Way It Is

mcSenior Fellow Marian Currinder spoke to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) this morning on the political dynamics of Congress. The question at hand was why Congress is the way it is, and why it matters.

It’s no secret that the current Congress is unpopular, with an approval rating that hangs around 11%. The list of potential causes for that unpopularity is long. People perceive Congress as fractured and ineffective (especially in light of the recent shutdown). Members of Congress are divided along hyper-partisan lines and are engaged in perpetual campaigns; their campaigns cost huge sums of money which requires constant fundraising (read a recent post on this topic from Senior Fellow Susan Sullivan Lagon); they have too few opportunities for getting to know their colleagues, especially those across the aisle; and they work under the constraints of a twenty-four hour media cycle. The list goes on.

But the blame is not all on the members. Redistricting at the state level plays an important role. Americans are increasingly sorting themselves along geographic lines (see The Big Sort by Will Bishop). We seek out others think like us, act like us, and elect people like us. We are a polarized nation as Senior Fellow Josh Huder explains in a recent blog post.

We see the effects of these changes in the day-to-day operations of Congress. The House has voted 40+ times to defund the Affordable Care Act even though the Senate refuses to touch such legislation. The Senate spends a lot more time breaking filibusters than they have in the past. In today’s Congress, you can’t bring anything to the floor without knowing you have 60 votes to break a filibuster—something that wasn’t the case in past congresses.

Why should we care about these changes? The general point is that extreme partisanship makes it difficult to come together and get things done. There are so few electoral or political reasons for members to seek out a middle ground. The fact that the American people have so little faith (11% approval rating) in our governing institutions is a bad sign for Congress and our broader civic life.

Follow this conversation at @govaffairsinst