Is Congress’s purpose to implement the agenda of the majority party most effectively, or is its purpose to compel and enable accommodations in a divided country? Today’s Congress does neither very well. But which failure is a bug and which is a feature?
Those two visions of Congress’s purpose (which the political scientist Daniel Stid labels “Wilsonian” and “Madisonian,” respectively) generally point in opposite directions when it comes to strengthening Congress, but they are too often confounded. The Wilsonian vision would have Congress function more like a European parliament, with stronger centralized leadership and fewer choke points and protections of minority prerogatives. It would enable the party that won a majority of seats to enact its agenda and see what voters make of it in the next election.
The Madisonian vision would recover the purpose of Congress in our larger constitutional system but would mean slow going, greater cacophony, less centralization and more opportunities for coalitions of strange bedfellows to form. It would have Congress serve as an arena for continuing bargaining and compromise, on the premise that greater social peace is better for the country than either party’s bright ideas.