For more than 200 years, Congress operated largely as the country’s founders envisioned — forging compromises on the biggest issues of the day while asserting its authority to declare war, spend taxpayer money and keep the presidency in check.
Today, on the eve of a closely fought election that will determine who runs Capitol Hill, that model is effectively dead.
It has been replaced by a weakened legislative branch in which debate is strictly curtailed, party leaders dictate the agenda, most elected representatives rarely get a say and government shutdowns are a regular threat due to chronic failures to agree on budgets, according to a new analysis of congressional data and documents.
Studies show that:
Junior senators have fewer opportunities to wade into the issues of the day, largely because Senate leaders limit the number of votes on amendments to proposed legislation. The number of such votes has shrunk to an all-time low under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., less than 20% of all roll calls, down from 67% 12 years ago.
House Speaker Paul Ryan R-Wis., logged an all-time high in his two years of leadership for the number of “closed rules,” when leaders eliminate any chance for rank-and-file amendments. Ryan closed off discussion four times — as often as former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., did 20 years ago.
Committees meet to consider legislation less than ever. As recently as 2005 and 2006, House committees met 449 times to consider actual legislation and Senate committees met 252 times; by 2015 and 2016, those numbers plummeted to 254 and 69 times, respectively, according to data compiled at the University of Texas.
Even newcomers recognize the futility. As heated Senate hearings on a Supreme Court nominee kicked off in early September, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., devoted his opening statement to explaining why the judiciary confirmation wars have become so rancorous. His argument: Presidents fill the void when Congress cannot act, leading to lawsuits and leaving the courts to resolve disputes.
“More and more legislative authority is delegated to the executive branch every year. Both parties do it. The legislature is impotent. The legislature is weak,” Sasse, in his fourth year in office, said.
Junior senators here in Louisiana rode to victory promising to repeal Obamacare and replace it with health care that was better. There was a chance early in the Trump administration when Republicans had control of both Senate and the House to do just that and they couldn’t.
Department of Defense, retired