To what extent does the Madisonian Model predict the way Congress works? Political scientist William Connelly (2010) argues that many challenges faced by contemporary party leaders can be traced to the United States Constitution. Congressional party leaders must deal with factions, including factions within and across political parties and within and outside Congress, and they must do so within the context of the separation of powers. As Madison would expect, majorities are and should be difficult to forge in American government. Moreover, as Madison predicted, an extended republic would be overwhelmed with factions. America is a pluralistic society and interest groups certainly influence public policy and the legislative process. Members of Congress as individuals and Congress as a whole must deal with the clamor and conflicts associated with interest group demands and party politics. The vast majority of laws passed by Congress emerge from a process roughly as Madison described it. In this respect, “James Madison rules America.” (Connelly 2010)
Yet, a theory of governance derived from a combination of historical knowledge, direct experiences, and practical compromises between thirteen states with a population of 2.6 million people in 1787 is bound to have a few limitations when applied to a country with 50 states and a population of well over 300 million people.
First, not all of the issues in American politics can be resolved through a process that reconciles differences among the competing factions or interests. Slavery is the most dramatic example. For over seventy years, Congress tried a series of compromises to resolve differences over slavery, but a just majority never emerged. Ultimately, it took a civil war and unprecedented executive power to resolve the issue and hold together the Union.
Second, not all factions or interests are created equal, and less powerful interests may pursue their policy goals outside of government, rather than working through the system. Although Madison does not necessarily assume otherwise, the diverse factions and interests in the extended republic have unequal power and access. Political scientist E.E. Schattschneider (1960, 34-35) once remarked that “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent.” Unequal access and resources encourages some groups to pursue tactics outside of the policymaking process. Rather than engage in a competitive group struggle within the legislative system, some factions may engender social movements or engage in protests in order to shape public opinion. Furthermore, if the political process does not result in change at a rapid enough pace, factions can pursue their interests through the judicial rather than the legislative process. This was the case, for example, with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1940s and 1950s, which began to desegregate public accommodations through judicial action, long before Congress acted in the 1960s.
Third, the proliferation of groups in the extended republic may reach unhealthy levels. What if pluralism becomes “hyperpluralism?” Madison says a minority faction is harmless: “relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views, by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the constitution.” (Federalist, No. 10) Yet, in the process of reconciling differences between competing groups, legislators create government programs. Once programs are established, organized interests benefit economically and work to maintain them. Over time, groups form alliances with executive agencies, representatives, and political parties and their program benefits either grow, or become very difficult to cut. Based on Mancur Olson’s theory of collective action, Jonathan Rauch (1994) coined the phrase “demosclerosis,” a disease of the body politic derived from its inability to adapt to changing circumstances. Government becomes ossified. The proliferation of too many groups—hyperpluralism—can cause paralysis or gridlock, particularly with respect to reducing or eliminating benefit programs guarded by rent-seeking and entrenched interests.
According to Rauch, one consequence of “extending the sphere” has been an expansive list of benefits aimed to satisfy the interests of a variety of organized groups. A small sample of such benefits might include: depletion allowances for oil companies, ethanol subsidies for corn growers, cost-of-living adjustments Social Security beneficiaries, mortgage deductions for homebuyers, and tax credits for having children. Quite apart from merits of those or many other government programs, when one considers the number of groups, individuals, and corporations from government programs, the derogatory term “special interests” loses its meaning. “’They’ [the special interest] are, in fact us—you and me.” (Rauch 1994, 48)
Those limitations to the Madisonian Model relate mainly to social changes and government’s response to such changes that were difficult for Madison to predict. Moreover, the effects of hyperpluralism are debatable; the sluggish formation of majorities has always looked like justice to some and gridlock to others. Nonetheless, the specter of policy gridlock has caused reformers to seek solutions to problems that trouble the contemporary Congress.