October 03, 2004

The Structure of Congressional Revolutions

Fantastic reporting from the Boston Globe on the way Congress works these days. Most of it—a draconian Rules Committee, bills quickly ushered through Congress without debate, the influence of lobbyists—has been covered before, though the bit about House members not making friendships across party lines was interesting:
The House is frequently finished by Thursday afternoon. Lawmakers then tend to go home to their districts, missing opportunities to develop personal relationships that could foster greater bipartisan cooperation on legislation, as in the Senate, where the minority party has considerably more input.

For example, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, is close friends with Republican Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, and both say their personal relationship has helped them work together on legislation. Domenici worked on mental health matters with the late Senator Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat who was one of the most liberal members in the chamber.

But in the House, the truncated schedule keeps lawmakers from forming alliances across party lines that might challenge the wishes of the GOP leadership. "Today, members don't really know the other members of Congress," said Vic Fazio, a former Democratic Representative from California. "The two-day work week is another contributor to that."
There's a bit of a debate going on elsewhere about how much, exactly, individuals like Tom DeLay are responsible for all of this. My guess is quite a bit. Congress is such a small group of people, governed by a rather intricate set of informal rules, that it's hard to come up with good structural reasons why Congress is running in a secretive and distinctly undemocratic fashion. At the same time, it's hard to come up with a good set of formal rules that will prevent Congress from ever acting this way again. Except, of course, for term limits.
-- Brad Plumer 5:58 PM || ||