This essay summarizes Barbara Sinclair’s book about Congress, and in particular, how changes within Congress have changed the ways laws are made.
Barbara Sinclair wrote her book because, as she says, “… the gap between the legislative process that I observe on Capitol Hill and the legislative process described in U.S. government textbooks has become a chasm.” (P. xiii). Her book explains how the legislative process actually works, as opposed to how it used to work. The contrast is both interesting and disheartening.
In order to show how the process works, Sinclair compares two versions of Clean Air legislation, one passed in 1970 and the other in 1990; highlights the differences between the bills, and explains the processes used to get them through Congress; she also questions the validity of the compromises used to get the bills passed.
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She also traces (in general) the path of a bill from its introduction to enactment, beginning in the House and continuing through the Senate. She illuminates the reconciliation process that takes place as the two versions of the bill are debated and reworked into a suitable compromise piece of legislation, one that will pass both houses of Congress.
She also deals with the budget, a huge, on-going wrangle that now threatens to paralyze the nation and put us in debt for generations to come. But perhaps her most important work is the chapter in which she analyzes the changes that have occurred in the legislative process and the reasons for those changes. Since it is possible to consider the book as a history of various pieces of legislation, and since a paper, this brief doesn’t permit an examination of how certain bills became law, I’d like to use the remaining space to discuss the “heart” of the book: why the process has changed so dramatically.
Sinclair says that three major trends played a part in changing the legislative process from the “textbook” one we know from our civics classes (ideally: introduce a bill in the House; send it to the committee; debate it; vote on and pass it; send it to the Senate where it again goes to the committee; debate it; pass it; sign it into law) to the often hostile and difficult process we have today. The three factors that changed the way laws are made are 1) “…internal reform that changed the distribution of influence in both chambers in the 1970’s” (P. 82); 2) changes in the budget process; and 3) “… a political environment characterized by divided control, big deficits, and ideological hostility to the legislative goals of the Congressional Democratic Party…” (P. 82). (Recall that in the 1970s Democrats controlled both houses.)
The first change (the internal reform) occurred when “…a big class of northern liberal Democrats” (P. 83) was elected to the Senate; they came in promising heir constituents action on a number of issues, not more solemn deliberation. They were activists determined to make their mark, and their new style became attractive both to other senators and to special interest groups looking for champions. “Incentives to exploit fully the great powers that Senate rules confer on the individual increased immensely … the Senate floor became a more active decision-making arena.” (P. 83).
Something similar occurred in the House, as liberal northern Democrats sought to reform the system, in which “…legislative influence in the House [was] vested in powerful and often conservative committee leaders over whom party leaders and members had little control.” (P. 84). Thus, a series of rule changes in the House “changed the distribution of influence”; in addition, the House adopted rules that allowed greater public scrutiny of the proceedings.
The results were mixed. Because committee chairs had lost influence, which they bitterly resented, legislating was difficult for the majority party, with the result that “compromises crafted in committee were picked part on the floor” – and sessions dragged on endlessly. The Democrats looked to their party leaders for help in dealing with these problems, and the leaders responded by introducing new and innovative ways of making legislation, thus altering the legislative process itself. (P. 86). One of the changes that begin to creep in about this time is the idea that it is necessary to craft legislation that will pass, not necessarily legislation that is the best response to the problem it addresses.
The second change is in the budget. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter and Congressional Democrats were alarmed by the high inflation rate and wanted to make budget cuts quickly. Fearing that ordinary legislation would take too long, “they decided to use the budget process, to include reconciliation instructions in the first budget resolution.” (P. 87). The move was highly controversial, but the measure passed; with the passage of the bill, it was clear that under some circumstances “…the budget process was a mechanism … for making … policy changes.” (P. 87).
Finally, the partisan rancour in both chambers has increased over time, leading to such things as multiple referrals (referring a bill to several committees simultaneously), and various changes in procedural rules made to benefit the majority party.
What’s left after all these changes is the Congress we have today: a sometimes effective, but often mean-spirited, argumentative and isolated body of (mostly) men that passes laws designed to benefit themselves and others like them, usually special interest groups and the wealthy. Sinclair’s book is an eye-opener, and for those old enough to remember when Congress was actually respected, a nostalgic look at a happier time.
Sinclair, Barbara. Unorthodox Lawmaking: Net Legislative Processes in the U.S. Congress. Washington, DC: CQ Press-Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 2000.
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