Nelson W. Polsby. Policy analysis and Congress
One of the functions of the United States Congress is to act as a machine for making decisions about public policy. In what sense does Congress engage in analytic activity in the process of decision-making? How can Congressional decision-making be made more receptive to the kinds of policy analysis that are carried on elsewhere, both within the government and outside it?
The fact that Congress is organized differently from conventional bureaucracies leads many observers to assert overhastily that Congressional decision-making is inefficient, cumbersome, and in need of instant reform. Consider, for example, the fact that Cabinet officers are asked to justify certain aspects of their programs in much the same language before authorization and appropriation committees in both houses, adding up to four presentations in all-- clearly an inefficient use of a busy executive's time, according to the busy executive and his friends.1 Yet this same busy executive insists as a matter of course that programs coming up the line to his office be justified repeatedly to program review committees, bureau chiefs, department level staff, and departmental budget officers, and he would think nothing of justifying the program again to other interested executive branch departments, the President and the budget bureau. Cabinet-level officers quite commonly make presentations, formal and informal, justifying their programs to the general public, to interest groups, to newspapermen. Why, then does alleged inconvenience to an executive officer of the government provide an excuse for the recommendation that Congress change its structure if the same reasoning does not lead (for example) to an outcry to consolidate those three well-known extra-constitutional entities, "Face the Nation," "Meet the Press," and "Issues and Answers"?
This is one of the little mysteries of Washington politics, wrapped inside the bigger enigma that the organizational structure of Congress presents to most of the outside world. As an outsider myself I cannot pretend to know all the ins and outs of Congressional decision-making, but I believe nevertheless that some attempt has to be made to comprehend the unique qualities of the two houses in order to capture a sense of why they interact as they do with one another, with the executive branch, and with the rest of their environment.
The structure of an organization, after all, maps the topography of its economizing devices. So.in viewing the structures of the House of Representatives and the Senate whole and from a distance, it may be easier to see how rational calculation enters into the wiring diagram of Congressional decision-making, how Congress does research, how "politics" aids and deters rational calculation, and how increased professionalization in policy analysis can improve the political position of generalist politicians.
As institutions, the House and the Senate differ markedly in their essential character. The House is a highly specialized instrument for processing legislation. Its great strength lies in its firmly structured division of labor. This division of labor provides the House with a toehold in the policy-making process by virtue of its capacity to farm out and hence, in some collective sense, to master technical details. House members are frequently better prepared than senators in conferences,2 and usually have the better grasp of the peculiarities of the executive agencies they supervise. This is an artifact of the strong division of labor that the House maintains: Members are generally assigned to one or two committees only; and floor debate is generally limited to participation by committee members. There is an expectation that members will concentrate their energies, rather than range widely over the full spectrum of public policy. Patterns of news coverage encourage specialization; general pronouncements by House members are normally not widely reported. Senators, because they are fewer, more