Why are serious debates in Congress so rare?

Associated Press/Jose Luis Magana/Susan Walsh/Andrew Harnik

The Senate’s recent consideration of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was quite the spectacle. Any American who bothered to tune in to it likely felt dismay. Here was a person being considered for an important position. In any other job interview, there would have been a frank and open dialogue about her credentials and work history— and, in this case, jurisprudential philosophy.

If only.

So much of what came from the senators on the dais was gasbaggery. Various Republican senators tried to paint her as soft on pedophilia and on criminals generally. Democrats rebutted these charges and endeavored to portray Judge Jackson as a jurist who would call balls and strikes and inspire young, African American women nationwide.

It would be comforting to say that this particular Senate hearing was an exception to the rule. But that would be untrue. The citizen who dares to turn on C-SPAN 2 to watch our national representative democracy at work is all but certain to be disappointed.

John Q. and Jane Q. Public will see committee hearings wherein legislators are bickering with one another or excoriating a witness. The recent snarling matches between Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Dr. Anthony Fauci of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been particularly salient since the pandemic’s arrival.

They also will see individual legislators deliver short speeches to an empty chamber, denouncing some evil, casting laurels on some fine citizen in their home district or state, or boasting of a new bill they are introducing. All too frequently, viewers will see the right, honorable Rep. Pettifog excoriating the president or the other party.

And the good citizen who dared to choose C-SPAN 2 over the hundreds of other channels on cable will see calls for votes wherein legislators amble into the chamber, mill about with fellow partisans, and register their yea or nay with the clerks on the dais.

What they will not see, however, are rousing debates between legislators or efforts to horse-trade or bargain on major issues confronting the nation. The closest they might come is if they happen upon a hearing that features lawmakers palavering with experts on a dry, remote matter, like the economic and political well-being of Costa Rica. Here at least they get to see elected officials grappling to learn and find a solution to complex issues.

Major debates on the floor of the Senate and House of Representatives are increasingly rare. This is not by accident.

Leaders in both chambers do all they can to prohibit arguing between legislators when bills are brought to a vote. The House precludes debate by adopting closed rules before voting on a bill. Said rules limit debate to mere minutes and forbid legislators from offering amendments. The Senate achieves much the same by operating under unanimous consent agreements, wherein the majority leader gets each senator to agree to not speak on the legislation to be voted upon, and to forgo the ability to offer amendments.

How it came to be that some of the most garrulous of all Americans — politicians — agreed not to debate is a long, complicated story.

Partly, it is an adaptation to the presence of television cameras. What person who has to run for reelection wants to admit that someone from the other party has a stronger point, and then, heaven forbid, accept a change to a bill?

Partly, the present situation also is an adaptation to the intense conflict between the political parties and attendant mutual distrust. Over the past 30 years, partisan control of the chambers has shifted back and forth between Democrats and Republicans at a rate not seen since the period immediately after the Civil War. Whomever is the majority wants to defend their majority and therefore views honest debate as threatening. The leader of the majority party does not want to have a vote on legislation fail, let amendments be offered, or even permit the expression of views for fear they might make his or her party look bad before the public eye. Party leaders’ desire to manage public opinion, which is a bit of a fool’s errand, trumps the responsibilities of governance.

So whichever party controls the chambers quash debate, and use those rare moments when they have to speak before the public — such as Supreme Court nomination hearings — to shout partisan monologues at one another. Increasingly, Democrats and Republicans treat Congress as if it was a parliament, with the majority trying to ram a slate of policies down the throat of the other party as it tries to relentlessly obstruct.

This is not good for the country. We are not a parliamentary democracy. As my colleague Mikael Good observes, the Founders designed Congress to be the place where the diverse plurality of America comes together to hash out our differences, and to confront shared problems. For the system to work, Congress must create more space where its members can debate and bargain. Otherwise, the odds are very long that we will find shared policies to address the tough problems confronting our nation.

Kevin R. Kosar (@kevinrkosar) is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the coeditor of “Congress Overwhelmed: Congressional Capacity and Prospects for Reform” (University of Chicago Press, 2020).  

Tags Anthony Fauci C-SPAN Congressional Debate House of Representatives Ketanji Brown Jackson Politics Rand Paul Senate Supreme Court nomination hearing

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