Philip A. Wallach, "Why Congress" (Oxford UP, 2023)

Summary

To achieve legitimate self-government in America's extended Republic, the U.S. Constitution depends on Congress harmonizing the country's factions through a process of conflict and accommodation. Why Congress (Oxford University Press, 2023) demonstrates the value of this activity by showing the legislature's distinctive contributions in two crucial moments in the mid-twentieth century: during World War II, when congressional deliberation contributed to national cohesion by balancing interests and ensuring fairness, and during the push to end racial segregation, when a prolonged debate in Congress focused the nation's attention and delivered a decisive victory for the broad coalition united around civil rights. 

The second part of the book traces the evolution of Congress, which first experimented with radical decentralization in the 1970s and then, beginning in the 1980s, embraced powerful leadership and ideological caucuses that prioritized partisan unity and electoral confrontation. This transformed institution has been unable to work through the country's deep divisions on contemporary issues like immigration or the COVID-19 pandemic. Contemporary policymaking often circumvents Congress entirely. In other instances, Congress is engaged, but it proceeds without any bipartisan cooperation or through leader-broken compromises generated by crises. Each of these patterns creates serious difficulties for legitimating American policy. The book concludes with three scenarios for Congress's future. Without significant change, the institution will sink into decrepitude. But it could still be transformed, either by progressive constitutional reform empowering the president at the legislature's expense, or by a revival of meaningful deliberation and debate facilitated by the renewal of the committee system.

Philip A. Wallach is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies America's separation of powers, with a focus on regulatory policy issues and the relationship between Congress and the administrative state.

Caleb Zakarin is the Assistant Editor of the New Books Network.

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Caleb Zakarin

Caleb Zakarin is the Assistant Editor of the New Books Network.

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