Today, we often think of the presidency as the epicenter of American politics, but America’s Founding Fathers did not see things that way, and their Constitution reflects it. At the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, they devoted most of their time to debating and shaping Article I of the Constitution, which provided for the “Congress of the United States,” and committed more than half of the document’s 4,400 words to the legislative branch.
The Framers in creating the legislative branch — which they saw as closest to the people — expected it to be the most dominate branch of government and least likely to tyrannize the people. In confronting the challenge of creating a system of government acceptable to 13 diverse states, their main focus was on restricting the executive branch from becoming another monarchy. Their firsthand experience with George III and in the Revolutionary War taught them how difficult it was to break free from oppressiveness.
Conflict over how each state should be represented in Congress, however, threatened to tear the convention apart. Large states wanted to base representation on population while small states advocated for equal representation. Had it not been for the Great Compromise (or Connecticut Compromise) adopted on July 16, 1787, there would likely have been no legislative branch or even a Constitution. By just one vote, the delegates agreed on a Congress with two chambers, a Senate where each state would be equally represented and a House with proportional representation based on a state’s population. Their intent was for Congress to be the primary repository of the people’s will.
Over the past five decades, however, no other branch of American government has seen a larger decline in its level of public trust and confidence than Congress. In 1972, Gallup found that 71% of Americans had either a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in Congress. Forty-eight years later, in 2020, only 33% of Americans said they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in Congress — a drop of 38 percentage points. Incredibly, today nearly 1 out of every 5 Americans say they have no trust or confidence at all in the legislative branch. In 1972, only 3% of those surveyed had no trust or confidence in Congress.
The obvious question is why has Congress, once a widely trusted institution, experienced such a dramatic decline in the public’s confidence?
Repeatedly, studies and polls have shown the American electorate is deeply concerned about the lack of accountability in Congress. The public doesn’t trust Congress to act responsibly in its interest and perceives it to be ineffective, out of touch with reality, and little concerned about the needs of average Americans. Instead, its members are mostly interested in personal agendas, only consider what is good for them and their party, unwilling to work together or agree on anything, and mostly influenced by donors, lobbyists and special interest groups.
Many voters acknowledge that good things might be happening on Capitol Hill, but have also shown increasing distrust for Congress because of partisan news, pundit opinions and social media posts, which promote conflict, rarely report positive actions, create confusion about current issues and have supplanted traditional news media. Understandably, it is often extremely difficult to know, understand or have a clear view of what is actually happening in the legislative process.
While congressional observers agree with voters’ perceptions, they see the gridlock on Capitol Hill as primarily an institutional problem. They argue that the root causes of polarization are: (1) increased use of restrictive rules (that limit debate and amendments); (2) elevated the power of party leaders to enforce discipline among rank-and-file members, control the agenda and determine committee assignments; and (3) decreased meaningful deliberation.
Historically, congressional committees have had a significant latitude in developing proposals and achieving compromises, but that autonomy has been reduced as control of the legislative process shifted to party leadership. This shift has weakened the potential for bipartisan cooperation and shifted congressional oversight toward more partisan political ends.
This scenario can only be changed when Congress considers country before party, adopts rules and procedures that give legislators the opportunity to grapple with the key issues, and reach compromises addressing the real needs of the nation. In the past, Congress has demonstrated a capacity to address the most pressing issues of the day, but only when its members have been willing and able to take into consideration all of the diverse views being offered and put America first.
As the nation faces another pivotal moment in its history, we must hope that James Madison’s reminder in Federalist No. 10 — that “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” — is not America’s experience going forward.
Stephen W. Stathis was a specialist in American history for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress for nearly four decades. He is the author of “Landmark Debates in Congress: from the Declaration of Independence to the War in Iraq” and “Landmark Legislation: Major U.S. Acts and Treaties.”