Orientation and Getting Started
Early Development of the Legislative Branch and the Problem of Representation
Enumerated Powers of Congress
Implied, Expansive, and Limited Powers
The Two Congresses: Representation and Lawmaking
Separation of Powers and Interaction between the Branches
Institutional Development and Change
Congress and the American People

Is Congress the Broken Branch?

According to political scientists Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, Congress has become The Broken Branch. Mann and Ornstein (2006, 10) link the problems to the behavior of congressional institutions in the post-reform House: “…ad hoc arrangements that often circumvented the normal committee process, restrictive rules that limited debate and amendments on the House floor, and behemoth omnibus legislative packages that short-circuited the normal process, limited transparency, and rendered the majority less accountable.” Meanwhile, the Senate has become a “bastion of individualism,” that has “spread the wealth to accommodate the interests—and whims—of every member.”  

One of the most significant factors in the changing character of both the House and Senate seems to be party polarization, which has elevated the power of the majority party in the House, allowed the minority party to obstruct business in the Senate, and created policy gridlock. Political journalist Ronald Brownstein (2007, 11) agrees: “The central obstacle to more effective action against our most pressing problems is an unrelenting polarization of American politics that has divided Washington and the country into hostile, even irreconcilable camps.”

In the Broken Branch, Mann and Ornstein fault both parties for institutional dysfunction and cite the research of Nelson Polsby (2004), who describes the long-term partisan realignment in the South. Party polarization stems from social changes that aligned conservatism with Republican identification and liberalism with Democratic identification. This account of party polarization coincides with lessons in Modules 5 and 7. 

In a more recent study, Mann and Ornstein (2012) lay the blame for polarization and institutional dysfunction on the Republicans: “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of fact, evidence, and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” Their claim played well on MSNBC talk shows and other liberal media outlets, but it was naturally unconvincing to Republicans. Political strategist and commentator Karl Rove (2012) contends that Democrats, too, engage in the same behavior. Rove traces the root causes of party polarization to long term trends in the electorate, as did Mann and Ornstein in The Broken Branch. Ironically, there may be hope for bipartisan agreement in the study of partisan polarization. 

Mann and Ornstein (2006) identify several indicators of the institutional decline of Congress. First, Congress is weaker in relation to the President. Mann and Ornstein (2006) say that under unified party control during the Bush presidency, the Republican House majority failed to check President Bush’s use of executive power, including his tendency to act unilaterally rather than work with Congress. When Congress cannot act, it may embolden the executive branch and increase its power vis-à-vis the legislative branch.  Secondly, Mann and Ornstein (2006) say that a breakdown in “regular order” has undermined Congress’ capacity to gather good information and deliberate over policy options. Ultimately, Mann and Ornstein (2006) believe that the result of a dysfunctional process is poorly designed public policy that may be deemed unconstitutional by the courts or allow the executive branch significant leeway in its interpretation. Finally, they say that partisanship has poisoned public discourse and further eroded public confidence. Mann and Ornstein (2006, 12-13) argue that Congress is “an institution that has strayed far from its deliberative roots and a body that does not live up to the aspirations envisioned for it by the framers.”