Congressmen Ami Bera, David Cicilline, Rodney Davis and Adam Kinzinger talk problem solving.
“Congress is inefficient, and shows itself more and more incompetent, as at present constituted, to wield the enormous powers that are forced upon it ... [Substantive debates] are rare … as a real tournament of medieval times.” Sound familiar? It’s a quote by historian Henry Adams, who chronicled the Gilded Age, as referenced in The House: A History of the House of Representatives by Robert V. Remini.
During that period, government, and the House in particular, was considered “poor in purpose and barren in results.” Post-Civil War partisanship was at a peak during the period, but it was not the primary cause for the malaise and drift, as each party assumed control for about the same amount of time. The budget was flush from protectionist policies and a historic economic boom, but so were corruption, inexperience and disorganization. Such problems were only symptoms of the root cause for congressional malaise: lack of leadership and a diffusion of power among committees.
In a Washington Post editorial “Slowly Doing Nothing,” the paper stated the “system of rules is the primary cause of the wonderful inertia of the unwieldy and self-shackled body … In stalling legislation and keeping everybody else from doing anything, a few members are all powerful.” Eleven thousand bills died in committee during the 48th Congress, and it wasn’t even the worst Congress of the period. This is not the only chapter of Remini’s narrative wherein a lesson lies: rules and leadership matter. It was only through popular unrest, third party movements and the rise of strong House Speakers such as “Czar” Reed and “Uncle Joe” Cannon that the institution resumed work in the national interest.
The entire book is a good start to a Readers List for No Labels. Other points of interest are the evolving relationship between the different branches of government and examples of historic compromise between them, such as Eisenhower’s work with Speaker Rayburn on civil rights and Social Security, Tip O’Neill’s grand bargain with Ronald Reagan on taxes and the resolution of the Hayes/Tilden election of 1876. The House is a useful and entertaining instruction of our most democratic of republican institutions, and like any other human construct it is prone to periodic failure and needed reform. Enjoy the read.