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It has been replaced by a weakened legislative branch in which debate is strictly curtailed, party leaders dictate the agenda, most elected representatives rarely get a say and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 by The Washington Post and ProPublica.
The study found that the transformation has occurred relatively fast — sparked by the hyperpolarized climate that has enveloped politics since the 2008 election of President Barack Obama and the subsequent dawn of the tea party movement on the right. During that time, as the political center has largely evaporated, party leaders have adhered to the demands of their bases, while rules and traditions that long encouraged deliberative dealmaking have given way to partisan gridlock, the analysis found.
While few of these changes made headlines, taken together they have fundamentally altered the way Congress operates — and morphed this equally powerful branch of government into one that functions more as a junior partner to the executive, or doesn’t function at all when it comes to the country’s pressing priorities.
Immigration — a major flashpoint in recent elections — has been formally debated only a few days in Congress over the past five years with no resolution. Efforts to reach a bipartisan agreement on health care markets — an issue both parties considered urgent — stalled.
And in July, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declined to allow debate on a proposal that sought to limit foreign influence in U.S. elections, warning colleagues such a bill could become a “two-week ordeal,” according to the sponsor of one proposal, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Instead, the Senate spent most of the next three months confirming President Donald Trump’s judicial and administrative nominees.
“That’s why I left. You couldn’t do anything anymore,” said Tom Coburn, the former Oklahoma Republican senator who resigned in 2014.
Tuesday’s elections could bring big changes to the Capitol, particularly if Democrats win control of the House and launch aggressive investigations of the Trump administration, but there is little evidence that the leaders of either party are prepared to rebuild the old system.
“If this continues, they’re going to evolve, or devolve, into irrelevancy very quickly,” said former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
The election of Obama set off partisan moves, and then countermoves, that drove the institution into ideological corners — followed by the election of Trump and a reverse set of moves.
To document this transformation, the Post and ProPublica analyzed publicly available data from the House and Senate, committees, and members of Congress, dating back several decades. Some institutional decline began 25 years ago, but the study showed that the steepest institutional drop came in just the past 10 years.
The study showed 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 McConnell, less than 20 percent of all roll calls, down from 67 percent 12 years ago.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has 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 closes 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 by the Policy Agendas Project 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 just his fourth year in office, said.
Executive branch agencies now make law, not Congress, he said. “There’s no verse of Schoolhouse Rock that says give a whole bunch of power to the alphabet soup agencies.”
It’s true. That 1970s Saturday morning jingle “I’m Just A Bill” would have to be rewritten for today’s Congress. The regular order that the character explained — start in committee, passage in each body and then a compromise between the House and Senate versions — only occurs on noncontroversial bills with sweeping support.
Some of today’s leaders reject the idea that there is anything wrong with Congress, particularly McConnell. He points to overwhelming bipartisan passage of a bill to battle the opioid epidemic at the same time as the bitter partisan fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination.
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