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People love to hate Congress. This new book reminds us why we should treasure it.

- April 29, 2017
The Capitol dome is illuminated before sunrise on Dec. 8, 2016. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

Very little about current headlines would make a political observer impressed with today’s Congress. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) is searching for the votes to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and pass a long-term spending bill to keep the government open. There is at best a halfhearted attempt in Congress to investigate potential contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.

But even if the contemporary Congress appears relatively ineffectual, we should not lose sight of the lasting, consequential influence of Congress on American life. To see that influence, the place to turn is Yale University political scientist David R. Mayhew’s excellent new book “The Imprint of Congress.”

Mayhew is our most distinguished scholar of Congress, the author of many landmark works, including “Divided We Govern.” His latest book weaves together themes from his lifetime of scholarship on representation and lawmaking along with many fresh insights to produce his most comprehensive statement yet on the mark that Congress has made on American politics and society.

Unlike observers who examine Congress’ failure to pass proposals urged by experts, Mayhew does not focus on what Congress “should” have done. Rather, he looks at what Congress actually did (for better and for worse) over the span of American history. Mayhew examines the participation of the government in 13 large political and intellectual “impulses,” which capture the country’s biggest policymaking endeavors — from launching the new nation to building an industrial economy to constructing a welfare state to controlling the debt and deficit. This figure displays them:

From David R. Mayhew, The Imprint of Congress (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), p. 16
Figure prepared by John A. Dearborn.

Mayhew’s investigation turns up five key lessons about Congress and policymaking.

1.  Many aspects of U.S. government performance are generic and typical, not exceptional

Mayhew observes that impulses frequently occur in many countries at roughly the same time, not only in the United States. For example, the postwar drive for civil rights and the termination of white-only immigration policies took place in many democracies. Similarly, the shift toward economic neoliberalism during the 1970s was a global phenomenon. To be sure, U.S. public policy is distinctive in some key respects. As Mayhew writes about the American welfare state, “The United States came to social provision late, has kept its public spending relatively low, and has nourished a mix of pensions and health insurance that depends uncommonly on the private sector.” But in many domains, American exceptionalism is hard to detect.

2. The common claim that polarization is at an all-time high is “bizarre”

Mayhew suggests that observers make two mistakes when they discuss polarization. First, they fail to recognize that political antagonisms can occur along many lines in society, not just partisan ones. Second, people fail to remember the past. “Have we forgotten the 1850s through the 1870s?,” he asks. “In the 1850s the sectional sides drifted toward killing each other — then they killed each other. The Civil War brought some 750,000 deaths, which would be about 7.5 million deaths as a share of the population today. It is hard to get more polarized than that.” In more recent memory, Mayhew observes, the McCarthy and Vietnam eras featured intense polarization, too.

3. Congress has been an inventive policymaker

Congress is rarely described as inventive, yet through the years Congress has participated in political impulses by crafting novel designs, such as land grant colleges, the Highway Trust Fund and the Clean Water Act. This isn’t always easy, given the need to resolve partisan or ideological conflicts. The bureaucracy often seeks to make government more rational and orderly, but Congress should be credited for reaching further and generating creative responses to political impulses.

4. The 1950s and early 1960s were a fertile period for domestic legislation

Mayhew’s canvassing of Congress’ performance turns up some notable surprises. One is how much Congress contributed to the post-World War II drive for economic growth. Congress did a great deal during the Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, although this is not always recognized. While the executive branch took the lead in managing the economy — generally relying on Keynesian ideas — Congress gave us the National Science Foundation, the interstate highway system, the St. Lawrence Seaway and more.

5. People may not like Congress, but it helps make our political system stable

Mayhew’s central argument is that while Congress is frequently disparaged, it helps make the American political system more stable and more legitimate in the eyes of citizens. “Often, when Congress is doing nothing at all, to the despair of partisans, intellectuals, and the media, it is actually responding to an unresolved electorate with a perfect ear,” Mayhew writes. When Congress has taken action in one of these 13 impulses, it has typically brought the public along. It does this by enacting bills by wide margins, thereby signaling consensus. It also has responded to public demands for government benefits, from the distribution of land in the 19th century to Social Security checks today.

Mayhew acknowledges that the “striking messiness of congressional activity” creates nightmares for agencies and can undermine policy coherence. The defects of Congress are on exhibit daily, and Mayhew’s book is not intended to suggest those defects aren’t real or important.

But Mayhew’s book is an important reminder that however awful Congress is to watch, its capacity to balance the presidency and represent a diverse society helps maintain the legitimacy of the American regime.

Eric Patashnik is the director of the public policy program and professor of political science at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.