The Dysfunctional Congress? The Individual Roots of an Institutional Dilemma

The Dysfunctional Congress? The Individual Roots of an Institutional Dilemma

The Dysfunctional Congress? The Individual Roots of an Institutional Dilemma

The Dysfunctional Congress? The Individual Roots of an Institutional Dilemma


Congress is in trouble. The public doubts its capacity to solve our nation's problems and the current majority party is attempting to shift the balance of institutional power away from Congress and toward the President. In The Dysfunctional Congress?, David Canon and Kenneth Mayer maintain that Congress's difficulties are the result of two fundamental flaws in the system: a misunderstanding of Congress's institutional role within our governmental process, and an ongoing conflict within Congress between actions that are individually rational for members of Congress, but are not in the collective interest of society more broadly. Most of the reforms suggested by well-intentioned outsiders- term limits, a balanced budget amendment, cutting Congressional staff, eliminating Congressional perks- skirt these two central issues.


In our undergraduate courses on Congress, which we have taught over the past decade, we often find ourselves in the position of defending Congress against the common charge that it is completely out of touch with the public. Political scientists, it seems, view the legislative process with far more sympathy than most people, even more than representatives and senators, who are quick to berate the institution. Our students often are puzzled by our insistence that Congress is not that bad, when everyone knows that it is corrupt and inept.

What we have attempted to do in this volume is explain why Congress acts as it does, and why so much of that activity undermines the institution, both in terms of how it functions and where it stands in the public eye. In doing so, we introduce students to an argument using "rational choice" theories to explain what happens when individuals come together to make collective decisions. We argue that Congress is fundamentally beset by a collective dilemma, because behavior that is individually rational to legislators results in a collective situation that none of them would otherwise prefer. Members pursuing their own election interests, representing their constituents, and locating themselves within the institution often act in ways that hurt the institution. Far from being a consequence of venal and ambitious legislators, this is a basic consequence of representative democracy. Even the Framers, in all their wisdom, grossly overestimated how devoted the first legislators would be to the collective good instead of local constituency interests.

The emphasis on the collective dilemma concept also provides a framework for thinking about how various reform proposals would affect Congress. In our view, reforms that would centralize control within the institution have the best chance of raising the visibility of collective issues; yet we argue that centralization and efficiency come at a price, and that these goals must be balanced against the competing, and equally valid, values of openness and participation. That is the fundamental question of democratic politics, and it cannot be resolved in any other way than through the political process itself.

In writing this book, we benefited from the support of the Sophomore Summer Honors Research Apprenticeship Program in the College of Letters and Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and of the Department of Political Science; through these sources we were able to secure the valuable research assistance of . . .

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