Is the House Dysfunctional?

Politico’s June 20th article titled “The Dysfunctional House” led with the following:

Someone in House leadership screwed up again.

The defeat of the farm bill — after both parties were privately bullish it would pass with large margins — shows, once again, how massively dysfunctional the House and its leadership has become.

Essentially, the argument goes, Congress is a legislature, or a law making body. If laws aren’t being made, then something is wrong, and those responsible are screwing up.

This feeling doesn’t only exist among Democrats. As an intern in Virginia’s state senate, most Republicans I encountered were eager to sponsor as many major bills as they could. And plenty of prominent national Republicans pride themselves on “making deals”. But just because it’s bipartisan, does that mean it’s right?

Absolutely not.

This line of thinking has some scary, if not patently absurd, implications. The first is that the content of a law isn’t as important as its getting passed. If you’re a self-interested politician, you can actually buy this. Having your name attached to a big bill is an easier way to get re-elected than constantly voting “no”. But if you’re a citizen, you really shouldn’t like it. This is how we get gun control bills that wouldn’t prevent the atrocities they’re designed to; it’s how we get national security bills that give the NSA statutory authority to review the call logs of every single American.

The second implication is that congressmen should act consistent in a way with the achievement of this supposedly-noble end: they should “get stuff done” to ensure bills pass. Those who don’t are labeled “obstructionists”.

In order to see the insanity of this argument, consider what a law actually is: an order from a minority of the population to the majority around how they should conduct their affairs, the disobedience of which leads to seizure of person (jail time), property (fines), or life (capital punishment). (Even if a legislature votes unanimously on something, it still represents a tiny minority of the constituents bound to its wishes.) Thus, the pro-action crowd presumes that your elected representatives should create more circumstances in which you face the choice of either acting a certain way or facing near-certain fiscal or physical harm.

But that is not the proper role of an elected representative. Rather, they should craft bills that are essential for the functioning of the republic, and they should intensely debate and argue those bills’ merits. If a lawmaker sees a serious problem with a bill, it is their duty to object, not to rubber-stamp it.

So allow me to redefine congressional dysfunction: it is the process by which a sizable portion of the elected body of government slows the pace at which it creates new mandates for the governed.

Doesn’t sound so bad that way, does it?

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