Point of View: Congress and Change

by Congress Project Director Don Wolfensberger

Mar 31, 2003

Since coming to the Wilson Center, I have had the opportunity to ponder what it is that shapes, changes, and drives a representative body like the United States Congress. Although I trained as a political scientist in graduate school, little thought was given to these larger questions when I became a staff member in the House of Representatives in 1969. Immersion in daily duties and legislative issues left little time to notice any ground movement-at least until you later looked back and realized the place had moved with the shifting tectonic plates.

My six years here at the Wilson Center, first writing a book on Congress, and then organizing public seminars on how the policy process works in our national legislature, have enabled me to develop a somewhat removed perspective on the institution while still remaining close enough to visit old haunts frequently and bounce ideas and observations off former colleagues.

My conflicted perceptions of institutional change are best summed up by the saying, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." As one who worked on congressional reform proposals for nearly three decades, I have been saddened by how quickly so many of the House rules reforms adopted at the onset of Republican control in 1994 have either been abandoned, ignored, or circumvented. The new majority has rapidly learned why the old majority did things the way they did: it is for the convenience of members to most easily achieve their goals of constituent service, policy influence, and re-election; and it is for the efficient operation of the institution to ensure that legislation is processed expeditiously, with desired outcomes all but assured.

If our ideal of deliberative democracy suffers in the process, so be it. When something really important needs to be done, the people will demand that Congress act in a responsive and responsible fashion. Congress will either heed the call or face a very disruptive and inconvenient change once again. This is, after all, the historically recurring and dynamic cycle of continuity and change that has made this the world's oldest continuous democracy.

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