The Legislature

What kind of job has America’s routinely disparaged legislative body actually done?  In The Imprint of Congress, the distinguished congressional scholar David R. Mayhew gives us an insightful historical analysis of the U.S. Congress’s performance from the late eighteenth century to today, exploring what its lasting imprint has been on American politics and society.  Mayhew suggests that Congress has balanced the presidency in a surprising variety of ways, and in doing so, it has contributed to the legitimacy of a governing system faced by an often fractious public.

Even in this most partisan and dysfunctional of eras, we can all agree on one thing: Washington is broken. Politicians take increasingly inflexible and extreme positions, leading to gridlock, partisan warfare, and the sense that our seats of government are nothing but cesspools of hypocrisy, childishness, and waste. The shocking reality, though, is that modern polarization was a deliberate project carried out by Democratic and Republican activists.
In The Polarizers, Sam Rosenfeld details why bipartisanship was seen as a problem in the postwar period and how polarization was then cast as the solution. Republicans and Democrats feared that they were becoming too similar, and that a mushy consensus imperiled their agendas and even American democracy itself. Thus began a deliberate move to match ideology with party label—with the toxic results we now endure. Rosenfeld reveals the specific politicians, intellectuals, and operatives who worked together to heighten partisan discord, showing that our system today is not (solely) a product of gradual structural shifts but of deliberate actions motivated by specific agendas. Rosenfeld reveals that the story of Washington’s transformation is both significantly institutional and driven by grassroots influences on both the left and the right.

Since the founding of the American Republic, the North and South have followed remarkably different paths of political development. Among the factors that have led to their divergence throughout much of history are differences in the levels of competition among the political parties. While the North has generally enjoyed a well-defined two-party system, the South has tended to have only weakly developed political parties—and at times no system of parties to speak of.

With Why Parties Matter, John H. Aldrich and John D. Griffin make a compelling case that competition between political parties is an essential component of a democracy that is responsive to its citizens and thus able to address their concerns. Tracing the history of the parties through four eras—the Democratic-Whig party era that preceded the Civil War; the post-Reconstruction period; the Jim Crow era, when competition between the parties virtually disappeared; and the modern era—Aldrich and Griffin show how and when competition emerged between the parties and the conditions under which it succeeded and failed. In the modern era, as party competition in the South has come to be widely regarded as matching that of the North, the authors conclude by exploring the question of whether the South is poised to become a one-party system once again with the Republican party now dominant.

Whatever you think about the widening divide between Democrats and Republicans, ideological differences do not explain why politicians from the same parties, who share the same goals and policy preferences, often argue fiercely about how best to attain them. This perplexing misalignment suggests that we are missing an important piece of the puzzle. Political scientists have increasingly drawn on the relationship between voters’ personalities and political orientation, but there has been little empirically grounded research looking at how legislators’ personalities influence their performance on Capitol Hill.

With More Than a Feeling, Adam J. Ramey, Jonathan D. Klingler, and Gary E. Hollibaugh, Jr. have developed an innovative framework incorporating what are known as the Big Five dimensions of personality—openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—to improve our understanding of political behavior among members of Congress. To determine how strongly individuals display these traits, the authors identified correlates across a wealth of data, including speeches, campaign contributions and expenditures, committee involvement, willingness to filibuster, and even Twitter feeds. They then show how we might expect to see the influence of these traits across all aspects  of Congress members’ political behavior—from the type and quantity of legislation they sponsor and their style of communication to whether they decide to run again or seek a higher office. They also argue convincingly that the types of personalities that have come to dominate Capitol Hill in recent years may be contributing to a lot of the gridlock and frustration plaguing the American political system.

In the United States we elect members of the House of Representative from single-member districts: the candidate who receives the most votes from each geographically defined district wins a seat in the House. This system—so long in place that it seems perfectly natural—is, however, unusual. Most countries use proportional representation to elect their legislatures. Electing the House is the first book-length study to explore how the US came to adopt the single-member district system, how it solidified into a seemingly permanent fixture of American government and whether it performs well by the standards it was intended to achieve.

The US Constitution grants the states the authority to elect representatives in a manner of their own choosing, subject to restrictions that Congress might impose. Electing the House reminds us that in the nation’s early years the states exercised this privilege and elected their representatives using a variety of methods. Dow traces the general adoption of the present system to the Jacksonian Era—specifically to the major franchise expansion and voter mobilization of the time. The single-member district plurality-rule system was the Federalists’ solution to tyranny of the majority under the expectation of universal franchise, and the Jacksonian-Whigs Era response to the political uncertainty caused by large-scale voter mobilization. The system was solidified concurrently with the enfranchisement of women in the early twentieth century and African Americans in the Civil Rights Era. Dow persuasively argues that the single-member district system became the way that we elect our representatives because it fits especially well within the corpus of political thought that informs our collective understanding of good governance and it performs well by the standards it was meant to achieve, and these standards are still relevant today.

Congress is widely supposed to be the least effective branch of the federal government. But as Josh Chafetz shows in this boldly original analysis, Congress in fact has numerous powerful tools at its disposal in its conflicts with the other branches. These tools include the power of the purse, the contempt power, freedom of speech and debate, and more.

Drawing extensively on the historical development of Anglo-American legislatures from the seventeenth century to the present, Chafetz concludes that these tools are all means by which Congress and its members battle for public support. When Congress uses them to engage successfully with the public, it increases its power vis-à-vis the other branches; when it does not, it loses power. This groundbreaking take on the separation of powers will be of interest to both legal scholars and political scientists.

James Madison’s midcareer shift from nationalist to Democratic–Republican launched a debate about his political behavior and the consistency of his political thought. This paper evaluates Madison’s political behavior by comparing his voting record with the voting record of other legislators of his time. Using roll call votes from the Congress of the Confederation and the first four federal congresses, we show that Madison’s politics changed but the change was not atypical. We also provide some evidence for and against various explanations for his midcareer shift. Our study compliments numerous works that use Madison’s political behavior as a backdrop for studying the consistency of his political thought.

Pages: