“A glaring lack of institutional memory” is on display in Congress today. 

By Charles W. Johnson '60

[Nonfiction] Tom Davis ’71 and Martin Frost, former members of Congress from Virginia and Texas, respectively, have joined political reporter Rich Cohen to produce an informative and timely work on the growing dysfunction of Congress.

Their analysis of apportionment of Congres- sional districts by partisan state legislatures, the influence of race in the drawing of those lines and the consequent importance of primaries and marginalization of moderates is based upon intimate and long involvement.

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The authors convincingly assert that Congress has become more like a “parliamentary” system, in which the minority party is the opposition rather than an affirmatively participatory bloc. Some of their other criticisms—of time taken away from the legislative process for fundraising, and of the reli- ance on political action committees to fund campaigns— speak to the diminution of political parties as the main recipients and disbursers of campaign contributions. And their belief that the electronic media have an inordinate and fragmenting influ- ence on decisionmaking is beyond dispute. 

They propose insightful reforms. Instead of having partisan state legislatures set congressional districts, they want that authority given to bipartisan or nonpartisan commissions—an idea that has gained traction in several states and recently survived U.S. Supreme Court scrutiny. Today, most members of Congress to become acquainted. Doing so, they argue, can be the catalyst for compromise. They also say that collegiality, even if partially self-serving, could re-emerge through a return to legislative “earmarks,” whereby members of Congress can, with full disclosure, push for bills that would bring money to their districts. This would prove beneficial in budgeting, and in bringing members together to forge compromises.

Missing from the book’s recommendations is a return to “regular order” as traditionally understood and practiced: A majority of both houses could investigate, amend and enact legislation with proper minority-party participation. The book does not dwell on the glaring lack of institutional memory that currently deprives all members of Con- gress of the knowledge of how the standing rules and norms, as traditionally interpreted until the 1990s, could engender mutual respect and trust.

Both parties’ use of Senate filibusters makes cooperation with the president extremely unlikely. The pressure on the executive to act unilaterally, while sometimes Constitutionally suspect, is better understood when the Senate makes cooperation impossible. In the House, leaders use the partisan House Rules committee to minimize what were not so long ago considered essential protections for the minority party and individual members. Both trends demand more restraint by leaders, and greater understanding by the electorate.

Charles W. Johnson ’60 retired in 2004 as the parliamentarian to the U.S. House of Representatives.