What are the big changes in U.S. national political institutions over the last 25 years?1

Parties are stronger; they also are more ideologically polarized. We all know about those. There are things going on with the executive branch and outside contractors that are important, though they’re not well understood. I’m sure there are others.

Perhaps the most important one, however, is the atrophied capacity of the U.S. Congress. I don’t mean gridlock during times of divided government, or even the particular challenges of partisan polarization. Unfortunately, the deterioration of the First Branch goes deeper than that.

Which is why an article by Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards in Washington Monthly is so important, and should be getting a lot of attention. They detail the critical and overlooked story of the damage that House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his successors have inflicted, and it’s not a pretty picture.

Here’s the much-shortened version. Once upon a time, the nation and its government were small, and Congress was the most important branch. As the government grew, departments and agencies become more difficult to control, and the presidency expanded to handle that task. Then, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, Congress added both partisan and nonpartisan expertise to be able to compete with the presidency and the bureaucracy. And, beginning in 1995, Republicans have aggressively undermined both types of congressional expertise. The result is a Congress with radically reduced capacity to perform the details of governing.

The result, as everyone who understood these things predicted, isn’t (as some conservatives hoped) a smaller government. It is just a more poorly run government. Influence abdicated by Congress has been snapped up by others, mainly bureaucrats and interest groups.

Moreover, when Congress doesn’t function properly, the capacity of the U.S. is diminished. Madison’s competing institutions turned out to work incredibly well. But with Congress atrophied, the government, and the nation, just can’t do things as well. And that doesn’t mean that with a smarter Congress the government will do more. Good evidence-based research — of the kind that was easier to do with fully staffed congressional committees and agencies, and members of the House with finely developed expertise — is needed, too, to figure out what government shouldn’t be doing and how it shouldn’t be doing it.

So please read this blockbuster account. As the authors explain, this is a major problem that was very deliberately caused, and that could be fixed to a large extent, even though rebuilding institutional strength would take time. I’m not optimistic about it happening with Republican control of the House. At at the very least, reviving congressional capacity and expertise should be high on the agenda for Democrats next time they have a chance.

1 OK, it’s on my mind because I’m in Washington this week (which explains the inconsistent posting schedule and the missing morning links posts; regular posting will resume next week. Root for nice ballpark weather for me tonight) – and because it’s about that long since I lived here. The biggest of the many changes in Washington now is easy to identify: it’s a much better place to eat than it was then, though I understand that things were even worse in the 1970s).

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.