President Biden in less than a month has issued 30 executive orders, clearly demonstrating the power of the executive branch. As the 117th United States Congress starts out with mostly new leadership the question on the mind of many Americans is how effective the elected representatives will be.
If the past is any indication, most Americans probably aren’t expecting much. Over the last decade, Gallup reported Congressional job approval ratings that hovered just over 20% — with a low of 9% in November 2013 and a high of 31% in May 2020. To put it in perspective, the institution has lower approval ratings than colonoscopies, root canals, and cockroaches.
This disdain of Congress can be attributed to many factors, including a rise in partisanship. But Andrew L. Johns, associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, believes the historical record reveals that Congress is not simply ineffective, but has in fact abdicated many of its obligations over time.
“As a result, the constitutional powers, authority, and prerogatives that should be exercised by Congress have been progressively appropriated by the occupants of the White House, both directly and indirectly,” says Johns in his article, “Declining the ‘Invitation to Struggle’: Congressional Complicity in the Rise of the Imperial Presidency,” published in the Pacific Historical Review.
The disturbing result is a less democratic and more authoritarian government. Perhaps most disheartening is the decreasing likelihood of solving complex problems that require a broad range of perspectives and thoughtful deliberation — exactly the strengths a large representative body brings to government.
While Congress will need to be the driving force in reclaiming its authority, citizens can do more than hold their collective breath. By combatting four main reasons Johns outlines for Congressional dysfunction, each of us can find ways to influence the power and effectiveness of Congress.
1. Congress isn’t designed for decisive action. This makes it easy to step back and let the president handle urgent matters. Congress has the authority to intervene, but not always the will to do so when it’s possible there is a faster, if less democratic, way to a solution. As citizens, we can be patient in important matters and, with our representatives, consider a variety of perspectives as they struggle toward solutions.
2. Political polarization limits congressional power and influence. The refusal to compromise with one’s political opponents prevents the government from handling pressing issues. Profoundly gerrymandered congressional districts and other tactics contribute to polarization. “Support members of Congress who are willing to reach across the aisle,” Johns says. When Congress is divided it creates power on the extremes of both parties and leaves the center completely powerless. “The center is where the work gets done, where the compromise occurs, and where Congress gets its power and authority.”
3. The evolving relationship of Congress and the presidency with the American public benefits presidential power. In the contemporary world, media and technological tools have created a presidency that has a closer relationship to the public than individual members of Congress have with their own districts, at least in terms of perception and familiarity. Presidents, like quarterbacks, tend to get more credit and more blame than they deserve. Citizens can make an effort to get to know their congressmen and frequently communicate directly with them. Know where to accurately place both blame and praise.
4. Parochial interests override institutional interests. Although members of Congress all theoretically have a common stake in the power of the institution, the stronger motivation to the hundreds of individual members is to get reelected by serving their own district or state. This type of situation results in the diminishing of Congress because the “collective Congress” fractures under parochial considerations. It’s true then, that the greatest power citizens have over Congress is their vote. Use your vote to express how you want elected officials to prioritize their interests when representing you.
Johns reminds us that we should support and elect members of Congress that actively seek to restore the constitutional balance because “the Constitution cannot enforce itself.”