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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: January 2013

1 - Congress and the Politics of Problem Solving


This is the most dysfunctional political environment that I have ever seen. But then you have to juxtapose that with [this Congress being] one of, at least, the three most productive Congresses since 1900… . Making sense of all that can make your head burst.

Norman Ornstein (Fahrenthold, Rucker, and Sonmez 2010)

This was, by far, the most productive Congress in American history.… Why? Because we heard the message the American people sent us last month: They don’t want us to sit around and waste their time. They want us to work together and work for them.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Bolton 2010)

How is it that a legislature like Congress – so rife with dysfunction and partisanship – can nevertheless meet many of the demands of voters and pass much-needed legislation? In this book we consider why and how Congress is able to address problems in society despite the many reasons mustered for why it cannot. According to many recent accounts, congressional politics has become so polarized and dysfunctional that lawmakers are incapable of cooperating on even the most mundane issues. Reelection and partisanship are such all-consuming concerns that individual legislators no longer contribute to the work of the chamber. Congress has been variously described as the “Broken Branch” (Mann and Ornstein 2006), the scene of a “Second Civil War” (Brownstein 2007), and a venue for “Fight Club Politics” (Eilperin 2007).

Claims about congressional dysfunction are hardly new. A review of scholarly research reveals remarkably similar statements in previous decades. In the 1990s, scholars debated how to “fix” or “remake” Congress (Robinson 1995; Thurber and Davidson 1995). In the 1980s, there was a “crying need” for reform (Penner and Abramson 1988). The 1970s saw a Congress that was “against itself” (Davidson and Oleszek 1977). In the 1960s it was “out of order” (Bolling 1965) and “in crisis” (Davidson, Kovenock, and O’Leary 1966). Even as far back as the 1940s, reforms meant to address a “Congress at the crossroads” (Galloway 1946) were ultimately judged to have “failed” to address Congress’s ills (Life Magazine 1947). These are just a small taste of the many books, articles, and reports over the years that have portrayed Congress as an ineffective lawmaking body in need of serious restructuring.