In our last article, we discussed ways in which the United States’ government is unlike anything the world had seen before our country’s founding. However, for everything that was unique about the structure of the U.S. government, there were features we borrowed from Great Britain—chief among them the bicameral (or two-chambered) legislature.
Great Britain in the eighteenth century, despite having a king, also had an influential parliament. Ruling alongside the King were (and still are) the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Britain’s two houses grew organically out of a shifting political environment. But in the United States, our two houses are written into the very fabric of our government.
Like Britain, we have a lower house—the House of Representatives—and an upper house—the Senate. Lower houses feature more (and therefore less elite) members and shorter terms. Upper houses, exemplified by the actual Lords in the House of Lords, have fewer members and longer terms. In the U.S., our two houses work together to draft and pass bills, which the president then signs in to law. Besides conforming to British precedent and offering an opportunity to offer large and small states equal voices, the two-chambered system is also an important part of the system of checks and balances envisioned by the founders.
Senators, often more politically experienced, serve longer terms and have less need to “vote with one eye on re-election.” House members, on the other hand, serve only two-year terms and therefore must pay more heed to the minds and wills of their constituents. Working together, the two types of representatives ensure that many and varied factors are considered before the U.S. passes a law.
Thought they work together, the houses do maintain certain unique responsibilities. The Senate, in keeping with the theory that its members would be more experienced and elite, confirms political appointments made by the President. These include ambassadors, cabinet members, judges, and the like. The Senate also ratifies, by a two-thirds vote, any treaty signed by the executive branch. To balance this power, the House is the sole body capable of impeaching the President and other high-ranking officials, which would then force the Senate to conduct an impeachment trial. Though both are critical to the legislative process—and both are meant to work together seamlessly—the Senate is generally regarded as the more powerful chamber.
Now, this bicameral system has changed very little over the past two centuries, but the two houses have not always collaborated with the seamlessness envisioned in the constitution. Congress has had its historical highs and lows. Like a stock market or a batting average, though, congressional effectiveness usually levels out. At the moment, however, that leveling appears nowhere in sight.
Recently, the 113th Congress, in its first session, was by almost any quantitative measure—and according to many insiders’ qualitative assessments—the least productive in history. For all the seamlessness envisioned by our founding fathers, for all the truth there may be in George Washington’s stance against monarchy, for all the checks and balances put into our centuries-old democratic republic, Congress is having a pretty hard time just doing its job.
The first session of the 113th Congress passed fewer bills—that’s fewer bills in both the House and the Senate—than any Congress since 1947. Only 56 bills introduced on either floor, or about 1% of the total, were signed in to law by President Obama. Moreover, American citizens share greater disdain for, and distrust in, Congress than just about ever before—and that’s saying something. U.S. citizens have long loved to decry their representatives—as evidenced in Mark Twain’s, “Reader, suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
For Americans to find Congress more frustrating than ever before, as a great number of polls seem to indicate, is quite an achievement. But, like Washington at Valley Forge, hope is not quite lost for the U.S. Congress yet. Every few months Congress, like the Continental Army, scrapes up the gumption to reapply a few bandages on their frostbitten feet. For many, however, this type of fix is not enough, and there are a number of efforts across the country to heat up Congress’ feet and get them marching again.
Some of these efforts seek to reform the actual election process. They work toward campaign finance reform or to change the methods we use to assign congressional districts or to establish different election practices. The goal of all of these movements is to put less polarized representatives in office. In theory, representatives elected under these circumstances will be more likely to compromise. Other groups work with what we currently have in Washington. Many of these organizations (which are often called “centrist” or “bipartisan”) seek compromise and common ground among our current elected officials.
Whichever type of reform comes to fruition, the current low in Congress will someday level out, just as every other low in our country’s political history has. The system established over two centuries ago has worked thus far, in part because its very nature allows for the possibility and even eventuality of political reform. Even a historically useless Congress cannot change that—and may even prompt it.