The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why does Congress have such a hard time passing laws? Let’s blame the Constitution.


Welcome back to The Monkey Cage’s weekly presentation of Founding Principles, a series of short videos designed to explain American government and how it works — in theory and in practice. The first episode examined the most basic of those principles: the separation of powers among the branches of government. This week’s episode builds on last week’s discussions of how power is separated among the levels and branches of government — federalism, in short. Now we begin a more detailed exploration of those branches and their place in the U.S. Constitution. First up, Article I – Congress.

Congress has terrible approval ratings, and it’s easy to make jokes – this episode tries out a few. But if we don’t take Congress seriously, we undermine our main vehicle for self-governance. Congress, after all, is the most powerful legislative body in the world: it has the power of the purse and the power to write laws. And if Congress is so bad, why do we keep so many of its members around for so many years? Why do we hate Congress but love our own member of Congress?

This episode puts together some of the puzzle pieces that drive legislative behavior: from bicameralism to parochialism to the need for continual reelection. It traces the role of parties and committees – and, more recently, of what the late, great political scientist Barbara Sinclair termed “unorthodox lawmaking.” (This year’s health-care debate is a great case-study-in-progress.) Most of the time, if you have to put money on whether a bill becomes a law, bet no. (We’ll see if the health-care debate is a case study of that maxim, too.)

But just remember, the rules our lawmakers are following are the ones we wrote for them.