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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Deliberation and Congressional Committees

Deliberation is a major theme of our book. One of the major criticisms of the contemporary Congress is that it has become less deliberative. The mass media and the polarization of parties have played a part, and so has the decline of the committee system.

Professor Todd Eberly of St. Mary's College of Maryland writes at The Baltimore Sun:

Woodrow Wilson once observed: "Congress in committee is Congress at work." But what was once a keen observation is now little more than an anachronism describing a Congress that no longer exists. In theory, the committee structure is crucial to a functioning Congress. By dividing the work among specialized "mini-congresses," the committee system allows Congress to become greater than the sum of its parts. Committees allow Congress to overcome the challenges of managing a diverse and numerous body through specialization and structure. Perhaps of greater import, committees offer the promise of deliberation, moderation and compromise as a multitude of voices contribute to the crafting of legislation … in theory.

In reality, the committee system in Congress has become increasingly irrelevant, especially with regard to what might be considered major or controversial legislation. Instead, most major policy decisions are made, not through a process of deliberation, but through the concerted efforts of party leadership and often with the total exclusion of not only minority party members but most of the rank and file membership of the majority party as well.

And that's why the joint select committee on deficit reduction — or supercommittee, as it is commonly known — failed. It represented an attempt to return to a congressional approach to legislating that is foreign to most current members and party leaders, especially in the House of Representatives: lawmaking by committee.