Sayre’s Law says: “In any dispute, the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” Or, as it is often remembered, sometimes as a Henry Kissinger quotation, sometimes as a gloss on something Woodrow Wilson reportedly said as president of Princeton University: “Academic politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low.” Contrasted with academe are those venues of decision-making in which matters of real consequence are decided, making it easy to disregard minor slights rather than nurse them for decades: corporate boardrooms, centers of high finance, military situation rooms, and—once upon a time—the halls of Congress.
But maybe not Congress these days. Instead, Congress now seems like a place where Sayre’s Law applies all too naturally. Members may arrive in Washington with big ideas about how to change policy in service of their constituents’ interests, or even about pursuing politics as a vocation, with all the difficult compromises that entails. The Capitol seems like the right place to pursue these ambitions, given our legislature’s constitutionally prescribed responsibility for making fundamental choices about our government’s role in its citizens’ lives and on the world stage.
Unfortunately, most members of Congress justly feel they are given no real part in these decisions today. Fewer bills pass; those that do are assiduously shielded from any amendments; and nearly all of the development of crucial omnibuses (like the budget deal just passed) happens in leadership offices, with the work of committees mostly unceremoniously ignored. Normal members find that their job description as legislators is reduced to showing up to cast votes when the leadership instructs—and those are usually carefully stage-managed votes, with little suspense about the outcome.
Would-be legislators are then encouraged to spend most of their time readying themselves to carry their party’s banner in the next election, which entails a full-time job’s worth of fundraising. Individual donors, who tend to reward ideologically extreme posturing, are the primary source of funding, while state and local parties who might keep candidates focused on pressing concrete interests have mostly receded. Candidates respond accordingly, competing to see who can be most memorably polemical. This overall job profile does not create the conditions for members to develop productive working relationships with their colleagues across the aisle, because they are not actually doing any work together. Members can be forgiven for mostly dreaming about escaping to some more consequential stage.
Contrast this picture with the Congresses of half a century ago. Then as always, junior members might find it frustratingly difficult to become influential, and leaders had tendencies to imperiousness. The famously manipulative Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson regarded most members as “minnows” who could be formed into obedient schools to cast votes when needed. But Johnson also had to deal with colleagues whom he regarded as “whales,” especially powerful committee chairmen. Chairmen in the House (especially Wilbur Mills of the Ways and Means Committee and Howard Smith of the Rules Committee), who held their positions by virtue of seniority, were equally formidable. Speakers and Majority Leaders were no doubt powerful, but they presided over an institution with many power centers. That multiplicity of significant players created more openings for members with ideas to press them forward, and more opportunities for genuine debate about issues.
Of course, the power of Southern Democratic committee chairs also created opportunities for obstructionism, most famously on civil rights laws. That led to epic battles between reformers and reactionaries, with the former eventually winning out and reconfiguring both the House and Senate in significant ways, as well as passing the raft of statutes that built the modern American welfare and regulatory state. Those epic battles did not lead to institutional paralysis, however, nor to mutual loathing among the members, even those who were frequent arch-adversaries. Instead, a gentlemanly (or sometimes clubby) comity mostly prevailed in relations among most members. The biggest difference was not that they lived in Washington with wives and families who socialized, but that they were aware of their shared privilege to shape the future of the country. And they did. That kind of responsibility produced a shared sense of gravity and institutional pride. The Senate of 1972 looked back at the struggles of its preceding decade and named its two original office buildings for two recently deceased rivals: Richard Russell and Everett Dirksen, a conservative Democrat and moderate Republican, respectively. Today, the insignificance of contemporary deliberations produces mostly pettiness, and it is almost impossible to imagine our contemporary Congress wanting to honor its members’ institutional contributions in this way.
The only real power centers left in our current Congress are the leadership offices—and, consistent with Sayre’s Law, relations between the leaders are generally more cordial than they prefer to advertise. When he was Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell was wont to go along with then-Majority Leader Harry Reid far more than he needed to, adopting an attitude that the “grown-ups” needed to be able to protect themselves against the rabble, whichever party was in charge. And now that McConnell is Majority Leader, he does indeed employ many of the same procedural tricks to quash the possibility of open-ended deliberation that could lead in unpredictable directions, scramble existing political coalitions, and endanger the familiar lines of contestation that brought them into power. Meanwhile, leaders assume that they can band together and bring their pliant minnows along with them whenever the going really gets tough. They did so, for instance, when confronting the economic crisis in September 2008, though not without difficulty. In the House, the leaders were startled to find that their members distrusted them enough to vote down the first version of emergency legislation—but they had hardly laid the groundwork for a more trusting relationship. It is a safe bet that if we faced an emergency of similar magnitude now, they would find themselves with even less ability to win broad support for a decisive action.
We are generally conditioned to think of the nation itself as being bitterly divided, such that the poisoned atmosphere in Congress is best understood as a symptom of a more pervasive miasma. Maybe, but research by Morris Fiorina and others in recent years suggests that this is not true in the main. We should consider the other direction of causality, too: Congress has structured its workings so as to produce embitterment among its members, and those bad feelings seep out among the public—who themselves feel like the ultimate backbenchers. If even their representatives feel cribbed, such that politics becomes the art of the insult amid the impossibility of significant change, the very ideas of political agency and self-government come to feel like cruel mockeries.
Today many observers feel we cannot afford to let really consequential decisions get decided in open debate among representatives of the people. The thinking goes that there is just too much at stake to risk airing out potentially explosive differences. Do the citizens of Red America and Blue America even share enough of a basic conception of reality to be capable of deliberating together any longer?
This way of thinking is precisely backward. In his classic In Defense of Politics (1962), Bernard Crick offered a corrective:
Diverse groups hold together, firstly, because they have a common interest in sheer survival and, secondly, because they practise politics—not because they agree about ‘fundamentals’, or some such concept too vague, too personal, or too divine ever to do the job of politics for it. The moral consensus of a free state is not something mysteriously prior to or above politics: it is the activity (the civilizing activity) of politics itself.
Practicing politics as it is supposed to be practiced in a democratic system will have a binding effect on diverse and even opposing factions, Crick explains, but only if these groups can actually share the experience of making decisions together. If “respectable” political discourse becomes an echo chamber for the dominant group, it ceases to be political in the authentic sense, and is as likely to promote divisions as togetherness.
Congress today is often portrayed as totally dysfunctional, but that is an exaggeration. After all, enough decisions do get made to keep the lights on and the military funded. And the members mostly get re-elected, so in some sense the institution is “working” for them. Nevertheless, member retirements are coming in at a record pace just now because Congress is utterly failing to provide a venue for meaningful political work. Until we can realize what an indispensable function this is—however frightening the prospect of doing actual politics, with real open-ended possibilities about what our polity will make of itself—all our efforts at reform are likely to make things worse.