Criticism of the United States Congress

Summary of mainstream criticism of Congress from the Wikipedia article

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Note: This was a disputed section of the Wikipedia article “United States Congress”. There was a battle to remove it from Wikipedia. In September, I revamped the Wikipedia article, incorporating criticisms as well as adding perspectives from academics. As a result, the current Wikipedia article (as of October 2010) is much improved. This chunk, here, is public domain. Feel free to copy it without attribution.


The United States Congress has been subject to controversy and criticism throughout its existence. Arguments between federalists and anti-federalists about its scope, power, role, and authority happened before ratification of the Constitution. As of 2009, criticism generally falls into one of several categories.

Congressional pay

Some critics feel members of Congress, who legislate their own salaries, are overpaid. In 2008, rank and file members of Congress earned $169,300 annually, [1] compared with a median American income of $45,113 for men and $35,102 for women. [2] Others have countered that congressional pay is consistent with other branches of government.[1] Congress has been criticized for trying to conceal its pay raises by slipping them into a large bill at the last minute.[3] Others have criticized the wealth of members of Congress.[4] [5]

Lavish trips at taxpayer expense

The Wall Street Journal reported lawmaker trips abroad at taxpayer expense, which included spas, $300-per-night extra unused rooms, shopping excursions, tours of historic buildings, fancy dinners, escorts by military officials, and free flights courtesy of the Air Force.[6] One five-day trip by two senators with wives to Germany included excursions along the Rhine and a heavy metal music concert; the trip cost $70,000, not including travel expenses by the Air Force.[6] Another trip had lawmakers staying at Edinburgh’s Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa, which featured “state-of-the-art spa and leisure facilities including a rooftop indoor/outdoor pool” and with wives eating $40-per-person “traditional English cream tea”.[6] The group visited Edinburgh Castle as well as Rosslyn Chapel, which was featured in The Da Vinci Code, and dined at the Rhubarb restaurant described as the “preferred destination for cash-flash celebrities”.[6] Afterwards, a lawmaker described the trip in this way: “It was fun.”[6] Lawmakers respond that “traveling with spouses compensates for being away from them a lot in Washington” and justify the trips as a way to meet officials in other nations. [6]

Low approval ratings

Public opinion polls asking people if they approve of the job Congress is doing have, in the last few decades, generally been low.[7] Approval ratings in December 2007 were 25%, meaning only 1 out of 4 Americans approved of Congress.[7] Approval ratings from 1974 to 2009 have varied within a range from 20% to 50%, with variation, with a spike of over 84% in October 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. [7] From 2006 to 2009, ratings have hovered in the 25% range, with a high of 37% in early 2007, and an all-time low of 14% in late 2008.

Partisan gridlock

Some critics have charged that fierce political infighting between Democrats and Republicans has prevented lawmakers from tackling tough issues such as global warming and deficit spending and prevented them from finding acceptable bipartisan compromises on issues. In 2009, two former secretaries of State, one Republican, one Democrat, described America in 2009 as “riven with partisan bickering as we confront a range of serious threats — economic, political and military.”[8]

Congressional power to declare war

Some critics charge that the executive branch has usurped Congress’s Constitutionally-defined task of declaring war. While historically presidents initiated the process for going to war, they asked for and received formal war declarations from Congress for the War of 1812, the Mexican–American War, the Spanish–American War, World War I, and World War II,[9] although President Theodore Roosevelt’s military move into Panama in 1903 did not get Congressional assent.[9] Presidents have initiated war without Congressional war declarations for the Korean War, the Vietnam War,[9] and described these conflicts as “police actions”. In 1970, Time magazine noted: “All told, it has been calculated, U.S. presidents have ordered troops into position or action without a formal congressional declaration a total of 149 times” before 1970.[9] In 1993, one writer noted “Congress’s war power has become the most flagrantly disregarded provision in the Constitution,” [10] and that the “real erosion (of Congressional authority to declare war) began after World War II.” President George H. W. Bush claimed he could begin Operation Desert Storm and launch a “deliberate, unhurried, post-cold war decision to start a war” without Congressional approval. Critics charge that President George W. Bush largely initiated the Iraq War with little debate in Congress or consultation with Congress, despite a military force authorization.[11]

Legislative and budgetary powers

Some critics charge that the presidency, acting under the doctrine of the unitary executive, has assumed important legislative and budgetary powers that should belong to Congress. One critic charged that presidents can appoint a “virtual army of ‘czars’ — each wholly unaccountable to Congress yet tasked with spearheading major policy efforts for the White House”. [12] “Vesting such broad authority in the hands of people not subjected to Senate confirmation and congressional oversight poses a grave threat to our system of checks and balances,” according to this critic. [12] Presidents have been accused of “trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not going through Congress at all.” So-called signing statements are one way in which a president can “tip the balance of power between Congress and the White House a little more in favor of the executive branch,” according to one account.[13] Past presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush[14] have made public statements when signing congressional legislation about how they understand a bill or plan to execute it, and commentators have described this practice as against the spirit of the Constitution.[15] There is some evidence that President Barack Obama intends to limit but not abandon this practice. [16] During the George W. Bush presidency, administration officials argued for an “expansive view of presidential power,” [17] with requests for broader presidential power; in 2009, a treasury secretary asked Congress for “unprecedented powers to initiate the seizure of non-bank financial companies, such as large insurers, investment firms and hedge funds, whose collapse would damage the broader economy.” [18] In 2008, critic George F. Will called the Capitol building a “tomb for the antiquated idea that the legislative branch matters.” [19] He wrote: “On Friday the president gave the two automakers access to money Congress explicitly did not authorize” and elaborated that this was more evidence of the “marginalization” of Congress. [19] Will sees an “increasingly swollen executive branch” and “the eclipse of Congress” and said that this process has been continuing “for decades.” [19]

Congressional oversight

Some critics have charged that Congress has in some instances failed to do an adequate job of overseeing the other branches of government. In the Valerie Plame Wilson episode sometimes known as the Plame affair, some critics, including Rep. Henry A. Waxman, charged that Congress was not doing an adequate job of oversight in this case. [20] Other critics charge Congress was lax in its oversight duties regarding presidential actions such as warrantless wiretapping, although others respond that Congress did investigate the legality of decisions by President George W. Bush involving such matters. [21] Political academics Ornstein and Mann have argued that there are “no votes in oversight” and members of Congress have, in recent years, decided to prioritize local interests over national issues and oversight, spending more time in their states and districts than in Washington.

Growing federal power

Some critics charge Congress has sided with other branches of the federal government in a historical pattern to undermine the authority of individual state governments to regulate their respective economies. Critics suggest the Supreme Court has had a pattern of interpreting congressional power “expansively” according to such cases as Wickard v. Filburn (1942) and Gonzales v. Raich (2005). [22] However, in two cases, United States v. Lopez (1995) and United States v. Morrison (2000), the Supreme Court rejected arguments that the commerce clause allowed Congress to “regulate noneconomic activities merely because, through a chain of causal effects, they might have an economic impact.” [22]

Congressional elections

Critics often point to attack ads that smear an opponent’s reputation or make unfounded accusations without discussing issues as being unpopular with the public. The consensus is that negative advertising is effective since “the messages tend to stick.” [23] Attack ads are prevalent in most Congressional races today. The 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law limited campaign donations for broadcast TV and radio ads, but didn’t limit contributions from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals, commonly known as soft money. [24] Critics charge that candidates must spend heavily to get elected and races often cost millions of dollars. Some districts are so heavily Democratic or Republican that they are called a safe seat; any candidate winning the primary will almost always be elected, and don’t need to spend money on advertising. [25] [26] When a Congressional seat becomes vacant, then both parties may spend heavily on advertising in these so-called “competitive races”; in California in 1992, only four of twenty races for House seats were considered “highly competitive”. [27]

Apathetic voters

Prominent Founding Fathers writing in the Federalist Papers believed it was “essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people,” and felt that a bond between the people and the representatives was “particularly essential.” [28] They wrote “frequent elections are unquestionably the only policy by which this dependence and sympathy can be effectually secured.” [28] In 2009, however, few Americans were familiar with leaders of Congress. [29] Numerous reports suggest voter apathy is widespread and growing. [30] [31] The percentage of Americans eligible to vote who did, in fact, vote was 63% in 1960, but has been falling since. Vanderbilt professor Dana D. Nelson in Bad for Democracy argues that all citizens seem to do, politically, is vote for president every four years, and not much else; they’ve abandoned politics. [32] Apathy was lower in the 2008 election, which featured a competitive election for president. [33] Voter turnout in United States House of Representatives elections 2008 (62%) was the highest since 1968. [34]

Campaign costs

Critics have suggested that the cost of campaigning has risen steadily over time and brings adverse consequences. In 1971, the cost of running for congress in Utah was $70,000. [4] Since then, campaign costs have climbed. [35] The biggest campaign expense is television ads, although campaign staff and materials are expensive too. [36] One essayist noticed in 1971 that the “growing dominance of TV on every level of political salesmanship has raised campaign costs astronomically.” [4] [36] By 1986, the average Senate race cost $3 million; average House races cost $350,000. [37] By 1994, the cost to run for a congressional seat was about $500,000 on average; in 2004, a decade later, the cost was significantly higher. [5] [38] One congressional race in 2004 cost $4.5 million. “Largely because of the ever-increasing cost of television advertising, the average price tag for waging a winning campaign is likely to zoom past the million-dollar mark this year for the first time, analysts say,” according to one report. [38] One critic suggested the Bipartisan McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law failed to rein in excessive campaign money, since so-called soft money contributions remained legal. [38] As a result, money plays a huge role in congressional elections. [36] Since fundraising is vital, “members of Congress are forced to spend ever-increasing hours raising money for their re-election” and “campaign costs continue to skyrocket.” [39] The Supreme Court has treated campaign contributions as a free speech issue. [35] Some see money as a good influence in politics since it “enables candidates to communicate with voters and parties to organize efforts to get out the vote.” [35] In the 2008 election, spending for all campaigns (including presidential) approached $2 billion in early 2008. [40]

Constant re-election efforts

Running for re-election can be a grueling process of distant travel, fund-raising, which prevents representatives from paying attention to governing, according to some critics. [41] University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato, author of A More Perfect Constitution, proposed an amendment to organize primaries to prevent a “frontloaded calendar” long before the election to prevent a “race by states to the front of the primary pack,” which subverts the national interest, in his view. [41]

Political action committees

Critics have charged that political action committees, also known as PACs, exert excessive influence over Congress and distort the democratic process. [42] [43] There is consensus among political analysts that money is important for winning elections. [44] One source suggests post-Watergate laws amended in 1974 meant to reduce the “influence of wealthy contributors and end payoffs” instead “legitimized PACs” since they “enabled individuals to band together in support of candidates.” [45] From 1974 to 1984, the number of PACs grew from 608 to 3,803, and PAC donations leaped from $12.5 million to $120 million. [45] [46] In 2009, there were 4,600 business, labor and special-interest PACs. [47] Big PACs include the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the National Association of Realtors. [48] From 2007 to 2008, 175 members of Congress received “half or more of their campaign cash from political action committees in 2007-08.” [47] Both Republicans and Democrats get PAC money; for example, in 2007-2008, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky got $3,754,331 from PACs while Democratic Senator Max Baucus of Montana got $3,257,396. [47] There were reports that some of the federal bailout money in the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) for distressed banks during the economic downturn of 2007-2008 was being doled out as campaign contributions to lawmakers who oversee TARP. [49] In 1988, Joseph A. Califano, Jr. wrote “government regulation is more pervasive than ever” since the US economy is large and varied; and this encourages government officials to get “more and more involved in every aspect of our lives,” which spurs special interests to use money to influence legislation. [37] Some PAC members feel resentful of members of Congress yet “go along with their demands for contributions for fear of losing vital access in Congress.” [50] Critics of PACs say it allows special interests to wield too much influence in Congress; proponents dispute the assertion that PACs represent narrow constituencies. [50] Bipartisan groups have tried to reduce the influence of PACs, generally unsuccessfully. [45] But reform efforts have been stymied because of perceptions that changes may benefit one political party or the other. [42]

K Street Lobbyists

So named for the large number of lobbying firms located on K Street, Washington, D.C. Critics have charged that lobbyists use legalized bribery to exert excessive influence over Congress and distort the democratic process. In many instances, lobbyists have actually written portions of bills for both houses of Congress that later passed into law.

Advantages of incumbency

One reporter noted “nearly all incumbents raise far more (money) than do their challengers,” which brings a huge advantage to incumbents. [42] “PACs give most of their money to incumbents because they are more likely to win; incumbents win largely because PACs heavily finance them.” [37] “Election to Congress … is therefore like getting life tenure at a university,” wrote one critic. [37] In 1986, of 469 House and Senate elections, only 12 challengers succeeded in defeating incumbents. [37] Most challengers are at a huge disadvantage in terms of fundraising. [46] Advantages such as access to campaign contributions, free mailings also known as franking privileges, and gerrymandering give incumbents an unfair advantage, according to some critics; as a result, re-election rates of members of Congress seeking repeated terms hovers around 90% according to many sources. Academics such as Princeton’s Stephen Macedo have proposed solutions to fix gerrymandering. [51]

Smaller states versus larger states

When the Constitution was ratified in 1787, the ratio of the populations of large states to small states was roughly twelve-to-one. The Connecticut Compromise gave every state, large and small, an equal vote in the senate. [52] Since each state has two senators, residents of smaller states have more clout in the Senate than residents of larger states. But since 1787, the population disparity between large and small states has grown; in 2006, for example, California had seventy times the population of Wyoming. [53] Critics have charged that the population disparity works against residents of large states. University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson criticizes the imbalance of power in the Senate as causing a “steady redistribution of resources from large states to small states.” [54] [55] University of Kentucky professor Richard Labunski agrees that small states have an unfair advantage in the Senate, writing: “If the 26 least populated states voted as a bloc, they would control the U.S. Senate with a total of just under 17% of the country’s population.” [56]  However, others argue that the Connecticut compromise was deliberately intended by the Framers to construct the Senate so that each state had equal footing not based on population, [52] and contend that the result works well on balance.