For decades, the public’s approval ratings for Congress have been abysmal. Even members of Congress struggle to justify and defend the value of their institution — or even seek applause by attacking and denigrating it. And yet the Framers intended the legislature to be the pillar of the American constitutional system, allocating it more power and responsibility than any other branch of government. How did Congress get so dysfunctional — and unpopular? Why did it devolve so many of its powers to the executive and judicial branches? And what are the costs to America when the country lacks a properly functioning Congress? 

Philip Wallach ponders these questions in his valuable new book, Why Congress. He is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. and served as a fellow with the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress in 2019. His inside view of congressional attempts at self-reform, combined with his deep scholarship and analysis of the history and workings of Congress, gives urgency to his case for understanding the critical importance of the institution and its need for reform. However much Americans disagree with other, he writes, “we must find ways to accommodate each other in addressing the biggest problems of the day, and Congress is the place we must do it…Our legislature’s diminishment impairs our ability to make good policy. Even more importantly, it threatens the vitality of our politics, contributing to the pervasive sense that our nation is coming apart at the seams.”

In this podcast interview, Wallach discusses the importance of what he calls the “manyness” of our republic in James Madison’s vision of representation and factionalism in American politics and how it conflicts with what he calls the Wilsonian impulse to make Congress a more orderly and less independent institution in which the big questions are decided within ideologically uniform and disciplined political parties. He describes the problems that arise when both left and right prefer a parliamentary system, with a much more powerful chief executive, to our constitutional order as it actually exists. He goes through the history of Congress’ involvement with the civil rights struggle in the 1960s and why he thinks the filibuster was useful in that historic drama. And he analyzes the rise of today’s leadership-driven Congress, in which rank-and-file legislators have little meaningful involvement with shaping legislative agendas, and what the prospects might be for significant reform. 


Philip Wallach: If we try to get by on a government that’s just utterly dominated by the executive branch, elections will become more and more hysterical, and I believe the outputs of the federal government will be more and more alienating to the public who sees them really as not something that they’ve chosen.

Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m very pleased to be joined today by Philip Wallach. He is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., where he studies America’s separation of powers with a focus on regulatory policy issues and the relationship between Congress and the administrative state. Before joining AEI, Phil was resident senior fellow with the R Street Institute in D.C. and served as a fellow with the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress in 2019. And prior to that, he was a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution in D.C., under the auspices of which he wrote his first book, To The Edge: Legality, Legitimacy and the Responses to the 2008 Financial Crisis. And he is also a remarkably and enviably prolific writer for popular, scholarly, and political publications. Welcome, Phil!

Philip Wallach: Geoff, thanks so much for having me.

Geoff Kabaservice: Phil, we’ve both spent a lot of time during the last two decades in the floating world of D.C. politics and think tanks and policymaking, and we’ve crossed paths a lot during that time. But I particularly wanted to have you on the podcast today to discuss your most recent book, Why Congress. It is not only an excellent book but one that, to my mind, brilliantly pulls together a lot of the disparate strands of your thinking that you’ve spoken and written about over the time that I’ve known you.

To quote from the book jacket: “The Founding Fathers made a representative, deliberative legislature the indispensable pillar of the American constitutional system, giving it more power and responsibility than any other branch of government. Yet today, contempt for Congress is nearly universal. To a large extent, even members of Congress themselves are unable to explain and defend the value of their institution.” And what you’ve done in this book, Phil, it seems to me, is not merely to summarize the history of Congress’ willful devolution of its powers and descent into dysfunction. You’ve also really explained Congress to itself and to the educated public. And you suggest to the legislators how they ought to change their ways to restore their institution. It cannot be said that you lack ambition, my friend.

Philip Wallach: Well, I think it’s not just a book that picks on the state of things as they are, although it does its fair share of that. But I think that the harder and more ambitious part is really to try to go back to basics and remember what can be good about Congress and what a functioning Congress gets us in our constitutional system and what it has gotten us before in the not really so very distant past. So part of the book is devoted to showing a working Congress, and showing how much good that did the American people collectively in their ability to hang together as a nation.

A big theme of the argumentation in this book is that we need Congress to function to keep the social peace, to bring together all of the disparate elements of our extended republic and make them somehow fit together — not always tidily or elegantly, but good enough. And I really am concerned that we are trying to devise substitutes for our legislature because we’re frustrated with the way it has some dysfunctions today. So we try to work around it and figure out ways that we can recreate representation in other parts of our government or create newfangled systems of trying to do representation. But the solution, to my mind, really has to be to rehabilitate this institution that is at the heart of our constitutional system. And that’s not easy work, but that’s the task in front of us, I feel.

Geoff Kabaservice: When and why did you start to write this book, Phil?

Philip Wallach: I think of myself as a scholar of the policymaking process writ large. And I’ve not always been a dedicated Congress scholar. There are some people who devote their whole academic careers to legislative studies and to thinking about the ins and outs of Congress, and that doesn’t describe me. I’ve come to study Congress over the last maybe seven or eight years because it seems to me that Congress is the place that needs the most work to make our constitutional system and our policymaking system function properly. It’s sort of the wobbly leg of our stool. And I can understand why sometimes people go in other directions because there is sometimes a sense that it’s just hard to fix the problems that Congress is suffering right now. They’re deeply rooted in our political culture in many ways. But again, I don’t think there’s any substitute. I don’t think there’s any getting around this problem.

I think that if we allow Congress to slide further and further into irrelevance, we really do so at the risk of — to be dramatic about it — endangering self-government in America. I really think that if we try to get by on a government that’s just utterly dominated by the executive branch, where the only dose of democracy really comes in through quadrennial presidential elections, I think those elections will become more and more hysterical. And I believe the outputs of the federal government will be more and more alienating to the public who sees them really as not something that they’ve chosen. So I think we already have a flavor of what that feels like, and I think it will get worse if Congress does not get better.

Geoff Kabaservice: The stakes are high. I always ask my guests on this podcast to tell me something about themselves. So where did you grow up? Where were you educated? And how did you come to your particular interests and outlook?

Philip Wallach: Wow, that’s an interesting question. I’m from Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb on the east side of Cleveland. I went to public schools there and I went to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut for my undergraduate years. And my undergraduate education really did shape my thinking quite a lot. I was in a program called the College of Social Studies there, which was sort of big-picture thinking that combined economics and history and government and social thought. We read Adam Smith and Karl Marx and Durkheim and Weber. And it caused me to feel like asking big questions is really the thing that interests me most.

I then proceeded to go get my Ph.D. in American Politics from Princeton, but then I sort of beat my retreat from the academic world — in part because I have felt like academic political science has more sympathy for being extremely methodologically rigorous rather than asking big questions and rather than engaging with active public policy fights. And both of those things are more interesting to me than being too methodologically rigorous.

I fancy myself a careful enough scholar, but I do think it’s very important to be asking big questions and to be willing to face up to the normative stakes of those big questions. I guess I don’t have any aspiration of being disinterested, too much. I feel like I would like to be a patriotic scholar. And I think a lot of academics would look crosswise at that, but here at the American Enterprise Institute, they’re very happy for people to see it that way.

Geoff Kabaservice: I’ve always been intrigued by how much you know about the American Whig Party and the period during the 1840s and ‘50s when the Whig Party came apart and U.S. politics fell into this incredibly chaotic and tumultuous period with the rise of new parties like the Free Soil Party, the Know-Nothings, and of course the Republican Party. And I have wondered if this history has maybe been more immediate and relevant to you because of your origins as a Midwesterner.

Philip Wallach: I got into studying the Whigs pretty opportunistically, I have to admit, just because I was interested in this question of how a party system could utterly collapse and be replaced by a new party. And I started thinking about that, I guess, once the candidacy of Donald Trump started to catch on in 2015. And I thought there were all sorts of interesting parallels between Trump and Zachary Taylor, who was very much not a party insider but somebody who was sort of drafted because of his celebrity appeal, and who did not play nicely with the party actors once he was elected president. I like to try to take a really big lens on American history because I do feel like one of my comparative advantages is just not to get too bogged down in the news cycle.

I think that’s especially useful when thinking about Congress, because Congress has looked a lot of different ways in its history. I’m especially interested in that era of American politics where really the three dominant figures were legislators rather than presidents. We had Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun. I don’t know that they’re remembered as much as presidents today just because they failed to be presidents, and we are all very good at remembering presidents compared to legislators these days. That’s sort of a frustration of mine. But they were in fact the giant, towering figures of their age, who were much greater celebrities than the presidents except for Andrew Jackson.

I’ve gone back to Webster quite a bit lately, thinking about his sort of nationalism as something that can be a useful source of inspiration for our moment. I don’t know that it comes from my Midwestern origins too much. I think of the Whigs as sort of… I have some old WASP origins in my pedigree, actually. My mother is from Parkersburg, West Virginia, but both sides of her family are American from way back when, and a lot from Massachusetts and other places on the East Coast. So maybe I have some affinity for old WASPs of back in the day because of that.

Geoff Kabaservice: Well, Cleveland — or the land where Cleveland now rests — was after all part of Connecticut once upon a time. So AEI, where you work, is conventionally identified as a right-of-center institution. But you’ve also worked for Brookings, which is usually identified as a liberal one, and R Street, which is somewhere in the middle. Have your politics changed over time? And how would you have characterized yourself politically at different points in your career?

Philip Wallach: I’ve always felt moderate, and I’ve always felt conservative with a little c. And I still feel those ways now. I think that I’m more comfortable thinking that the phrase “liberal conservative” or “conservative liberal” just actually makes a lot of sense in our country and in our political moment. And that is how I see myself today. I very much am somebody who’s suspicious of the progressive left, and always has been. And having gone to Wesleyan University, I had a lot of chances to practice sparring with that point of view.

I used to think of myself more as a little-l libertarian. I’ve come to think of myself as somebody who still has some of those sympathies but doesn’t identify so much with people who organize themselves under that flag anymore. And I’ve come over time, perhaps just because of the tumult in our own political moment, to think of myself as somebody who values social order more highly than most people seem to. So I guess that makes me more a little-c conservative, even as the term “conservative” in our national politics, I feel, has just come to mean sort of far right — obviously something you know more about than just about anyone, Geoff.

Geoff Paracervical: Well, thank you, I think. So I believe you were with R Street when you served as a fellow with the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. Tell me something about that experience.

Philip Wallach: Sure. That committee was formed after there was a bit of drama, not much remembered today, around the speakership election after the 2018 midterms. It was pretty widely assumed that Nancy Pelosi would come back and be Speaker again, after having done so in the Bush and Obama years. But she still had to do a little bit of wheeling and dealing to line up the votes. And one of the groups that forced her to negotiate a little bit was the Problem Solvers Caucus, which is this bipartisan group of moderates. Before the midterm, members of both parties that were part of that caucus pledged to each other that they would extract certain procedural concessions from whoever was trying to get elected speaker, whichever party won the majority. And the Democratic members kept their part of the bargain and tried to push Pelosi to do something about opening up Congress and making it a less speaker-dominated institution. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, I would say, was sort of the leader of these efforts.

So she made a few concessions. It was pretty in-the-weeds stuff like the consensus calendar, but she also agreed to the creation of this committee, the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. And it had a little bit of an ambiguous charter. Some people thought of it as more sort of tech-oriented: “”how to get the House into the 21st century kind of stuff, using computers. And there were some things that suggested that maybe it was invited to do some broader thinking about the organization of the House and what it should look like.

So I got a chance to take a brief hiatus from my regular work at R Street and go embed with that committee. I can’t say that I was a terribly influential player by any stretch of the imagination. The committee functioned on a consensus basis. It wanted to do things only that all of its members could agree upon. So there were six Democrats and six Republicans, and they did a chair and vice chair to try to make things extra bipartisan. And they were remarkably successful in creating some good feelings and doing a lot of constructive work. From my point of view, they were less successful in using some of the ambiguity of their mission to think big about how we could shake up the House, so I was a little bit frustrated in that respect.

But it was a fascinating time for me. I went to work on Capitol Hill every day, which I had never done before, even though I was interested in Congress. And just being there definitely gave me a lot of insights into the nitty-gritty workings of the place. It got me up to speed on a lot of history that most people don’t know much about: how the House was reformed in the 1990s, which I found really interesting, which makes part of Chapter Five of my current book. Overall, I’d say I benefited from it quite a lot even though it was a frustrating experience in some ways.

Geoff Kabaservice: I would identify the leaders in that committee as on the Democratic side mostly Derek Kilmer of Washington, and on the Republican side, first Tom Graves of Georgia and then William Timmons of South Carolina.

Philip Wallach: Kilmer is the driving force, without any question.

Geoff Kabaservice: And what did it seem to you were the major achievements of that committee?

Philip Wallach: Well, it’s hard to know exactly what to credit just to them, because there were some movements afoot elsewhere at the same time. But I think it’s really significant that they pushed for higher staff pay, and lo and behold, Nancy Pelosi helped to raise the ceiling on staff pay before her time as Speaker ended. I think that’s really important and significant, and the committee should get a lot of credit for fighting for that. They also fought for earmarks, which is not something they were entirely alone in doing. There’s a lot of other folks out there in the world who think it’s sort of a helpful lubricant of compromise politics to have earmarks, and they missed them after Republicans got rid of them in 2011. And now we have earmarks again, in spite of the fact that some Republicans still think that they’re rather sordid. And so the committee pushed hard for those and was part of the process of getting those back in place in their modern, somewhat spiffed-up form. So I’d say those are two pretty noteworthy accomplishments.

Geoff Kabaservice: And what would you have liked to have seen the committee take on in terms of reaching for a bigger, more ambitious ambit perhaps?

Philip Wallach: Well, a big theme of the book is: Where does the balance of power lie in these chambers? How centralized are they? How much are they top-down institutions? How much chance do regular members have to feel like they’re a meaningful part of the legislative process? Because we’ve seen a pretty strong trend that’s lasted decades now that has seen power move to the Speaker’s Office.

Geoff Kabaservice: Under both Republican and Democratic leadership.

Philip Wallach: Absolutely. So the book tells this story going back to the early mid-1980s, even beginning under Speaker O’Neill but especially under Jim Wright in the mid 1980s, and then Gingrich coming in for the Republicans and absolutely adopting this centralized model and driving it further ahead in many ways. And Pelosi taking on the Gingrich role, and Hastert and DeLay being pretty enthusiastic about banging heads.

I’m very frustrated with the sense of diminishment of the rank-and-file members of the House of Representatives. I think a lot of members today feel that their jobs consist of dialing for dollars, and coming and voting how the leaders tell them to vote, and they don’t have a meaningful chance to actually shape the legislation or figure out what ought to be on the agenda. They’re just sort of passive recipients of both of those things. And they consent to that arrangement for various reasons that we could talk about, but they’re not happy about that.

There was a lot of talk in the select committee about how unhappy members were with that but, in my feeling, not a lot of push for how we could get power away from the Speaker. And in some ways I felt like the Speaker cast a very long shadow and people did not want to mix it up with her. So there’s some sense that… Well, the committee has now transformed. It has not quite gone extinct. It’s become a permanent subcommittee of the House, the Committee on House Administration. But more importantly, Nancy Pelosi is not the speaker anymore.

And the speakership fight that we had in January of this year featured a lot of very open fighting about what the House of Representatives should look like that we’ve seen boil over some more in the past couple weeks (just before we’re recording this podcast) around the debt limit deal. There’s a lot of consternation about the Speaker calling all the shots that conservative Republicans are bringing to the table. And so I find it somewhat heartening that some of these concerns that the committee didn’t really push very hard on are now getting aired out in this more conflictual process that in fact gets more people to pay attention and maybe can lead to some healthy institutional evolution.

Geoff Kabaservice: Something that’s particularly terrific about your book is that you were so embedded with Congress, you were there in the select committee meetings, you know so much about what goes on in contemporary politics. But your book also takes in the entire sweep of American history. And you begin largely with James Madison’s Federalist No. 10, where he sets out his vision of what a Madisonian legislature should be. So let me just ask first: What would a well-formed Madisonian legislature look like? And what is the difference between representation and democracy in Madison’s understanding?

Philip Wallach: Sure. Madison is a profound thinker who worries about how to keep the social peace and how to keep any single faction from becoming tyrannical in American politics. And Federalist 10, as shopworn as it is, really is I think a very profound document. The vision is that we have lots of different kinds of factions; that’s important to the vision that they’re not all just overlapping. There’s regional, there’s class interests (more or less), there’s confessional differences. And all of these things make America a very complicated place. And the key to having free play of politics, non-dominated politics, is to let all of those factions mix it up with each other on a continuous basis and force them to confront each other and try to persuade each other and work out accommodations with each other. So it’s the multiplicity of faction that’s really the important premise of this whole account.

And so Madison imagines Congress as the place where this… “manyness” is the word I like to use in my book, even though it’s not really a real word. “Plurality” has these other meanings, and “diversity” has all these connotations today. So I say the manyness of our republic has its say in the manyness of the legislature, of the Congress, and that’s just absolutely central to why our politics is supposed to be free and genuinely representative, something that the people of the country can trust as actually faithfully giving their interests the respect they deserve. And that’s it. It’s not really such a complicated insight, but the idea is that we need to embrace the manyness and not try to sweep it under the rug because it’s untidy.

And there’s this other impulse running through the history of political reform which I generally call the Wilsonian impulse, which is to say, “Gosh, this is so messy. How can we ever have functional accountability when there’s this big mess happening and nobody knows whose fault anything is? And we need to tidy things up and make everything very neat and give the voters a choice between two big programs that have been carefully curated for them. And we’ll hold elections and whichever program wins will get to have its way for a while until the next election, and then we’ll check back in with the voters then.”

And the vision is very mandate-driven and it’s very binary. And there’s a sense that, to the extent that the country’s a big complicated place, where we deal with that is in intraparty deliberations where we hash out what those programs should look like. And that’s supposed to be a vital, truly deliberative realm. But actually coming to the Congress, that’s just sort of where you push things across the line and ministerially register things, and you’ve already worked the deals out elsewhere. And it’s sort of hygienic to air out all this stuff in the formal debating chamber, but it’s not all that important really.

So those are the two visions. I’m very much in favor of the Madisonian one and fearful of the Wilsonian one. But one of the points of the book is to say that I think an awful lot of people who are big on little-d democracy have embraced the Wilsonian vision, almost to the exclusion of the Madisonian one and to the exclusion of believing that representative government has any real value in and of itself. They wish for the Congress to merely be an accounting mechanism, a place where we register the deeds arranged elsewhere. And they’re perfectly happy with the idea that we settle the big questions at the ballot box.

I think that’s very unhealthy, because I think well-functioning legislative politics are generative, are creative. They bring forth possibilities that weren’t obvious at the start. And when we deprive ourselves of that, and just fall back on our two programs, they become very stagnant. And that causes us to be less able to adapt to the changing world. So I think that Madisonian politics are healthy and can lead to good policymaking. For me, their central value is their ability to actually get us to realize that we can live with each other, that we can work out accommodations even though we are never going to agree on some very fundamental matters.

Geoff Kabaservice: It does seem though that this has been a really long-running debate, and often political scientists have ended up on the Wilsonian position. You alluded at one point in your book, I think, to the famous American Political Science Association report by E. E. Schattschneider, which called for parties to be more ideologically uniform, more disciplined, to give the voters a clear choice. And there also was, I think, a pretty prescient dissent to that report by Austin Ranney saying, “Beware of what this will lead to.”

Philip Wallach: I think that document, which was certainly masterminded by Schattschneider but had the weight of the whole profession behind it, in a way… It was this 1950 report of the American Political Science Association, unsigned. It has this vision of parties somehow working everything out and presenting very clean choices to the electorate. And in fairness to it, it somehow thinks that parties are going to be super-vital organizations and somehow big-time players within the parties are going to play a representative function in a very important way. I can imagine them thinking of it in somewhat more corporatist terms than is typical for America, but sort of… Unions are very powerful at that time, for example. You’re not going to worry about unions not having their say in the Democratic Party back in 1950. So I think they do have some sense of coalition politics being very vital, but at the same time they don’t really believe in dissent being registered out in the world all that much.

And they’re pretty far down the road of just believing in little d-democracy to the exclusion of any of our constitutional practices that are more designed to push us towards super-majoritarian tendencies and sort of forced consensus building. They’re big on letting the Democrats win and have their way is the truth. And there are reasons for that, and they were prescient in their own way. That is how a lot of American politics went in the years after they wrote. But I think they had a lot of blind spots. And I think the political science profession today has a lot of blind spots because it tends to imagine that the voters really know what they want, and it’s just the politician’s job to make sure that what the most people want is what we realize in our policies. And to me, I just think politics is much, much messier than that.

I don’t think most people know what they want about most public policy issues. I think if we try to think of abortion as somehow a paradigmatic issue, we’re totally fooling ourselves. It’s one thing that people have well-formed opinions on, but it’s not like banking law. People don’t have well-formed opinions about banking law. They don’t have to. It’s more important that they have trusted representatives who specialize in banking law and figure out how to deal with the problems that come up in banking law over time. I think the Wilsonian model is very dominant on both right and left today. There’s a lot of thinking about mandates. There’s a lot of people who just believe elections should settle everything, and I don’t think they can. And I think if we ask them to, we end up very frustrated with our politics.

Geoff Kabaservice: It seems that a lot of people on both left and right really would much prefer to have a parliamentarian system where one party receives a mandate from the masses and carries out its program without the ability of the minority to do much, until they are turned out of office themselves and the other side gets a chance. It seems to me that what you are asking is for our legislature to function as it was designed and not to pretend that we can become a parliamentary legislature.

Philip Wallach: That’s absolutely true. We need to remember that our constitution is just very different in its structure from a Westminster system, for example, and that if we somehow let the president act as the agenda-setter, that would make the president in fact much more powerful than the prime minister of the UK — because as we have seen very vividly in the last few years, the prime minister of the UK can get booted out by their own party anytime their party feels like it. And that’s very important. The president of the United States is elected for a fixed four-year term, which is a long time. And if the president got elected and then had the chance to call the shots for four years, I would be worried about that, because I would think that that would make the president a very intimidating figure indeed.

And for better or for worse, our Congress has a lot more independence than most parliaments around the world, and a lot more clout. I mean, there’s not supposed to be at least any sort of emergency valve in our system like we’ve seen used in France, where in fact the president can just decide to do things without the legislature after all, even if he tries to do something in the legislature first. You really have to get Congress to go along. And to me, that’s a very healthy way of forcing us to reckon with all the differences in our culture today.

I think that the key to my vision is that it’s not a healthy impulse to disappear people out of national politics. It’s understandable that we get frustrated with people or find that we’re suspicious of their motives, and sometimes we just wish we could exclude them from politics so that the rest of us could get on with things. But I think it’s very lucky that we can’t, because I think it forces us to deal with each other and the reality of who we are. And I think that’s much healthier than trying to sweep problems under the rug.

Geoff Kabaservice: We’ve been through situations of both tight control in Congress, particularly in the House, and loose control. You have a pretty amusing Clifford Berryman cartoon relating to Speaker Joseph Cannon, who really did rule the House of Representatives until he was overthrown in 1910. And the Berryman cartoon shows essentially Cannon presiding over a house full of little Berrymans in their top hats.

Philip Wallach: Little Cannons.

Geoff Kabaservice: Little Cannons. Sorry, little Cannons is what I meant.

Philip Wallach: Yes.

Geoff Kabaservice: So what are the benefits of a loosely controlled House, then, as opposed to a tightly controlled House or Congress?

Philip Wallach: For what it’s worth, I feel like that cartoon is worth the price of the book.

Geoff Kabaservice: I agree.

Philip Wallach: I love that cartoon. It’s beautifully drawn, and the caption in it is: “The House according to the minority point of view.” As the minority saw it in 1910, when this cartoon comes from, it was just all one big emanation of the Speaker. And as I’ve talked about, that sort of reduces the complexity and makes everything much tidier, but it sort of passes on the great virtues of the manyness in the legislature that ought to allow a more fluid politics. And in fact, politics under Cannon became so stagnant that an element of his own party — progressive Republicans — broke with him, ousted him from running the Rules Committee as he had done, and sort of set things on a different path.

So from that time in 1910 through roughly the mid-1960s, we went into an era of a sacrosanct principle of seniority in Congress in terms of holding the chairmanships. And because the chairmen were more or less completely assured of holding onto their power, they became the real centers of power in Washington. And we did have some celebrated speakers that sort of acted as grand coordinators, Sam Rayburn being the most notable example. But Sam Rayburn was not a boss, as Joseph Gurney Cannon had been. He was the guy whose bourbon-fueled conviviality made everything work, and made this very complicated Democratic coalition hang together, which was not easy work. And he was good at it.

But the point is that there were many power centers on Capitol Hill because of these chairmen having their own sorts of interests. And that created some healthier dynamics, to my mind, for policymaking. I mean, first of all, if you believe that the committees of jurisdiction really are where the action is going to happen, it really does pay to become a dutiful and diligent member of those committees, and to put in your time and rise in seniority yourself, and invest in policy expertise. Because you’re going to be part of writing the legislation that comes out of the committee, and that’s going to be what becomes the law.

If on the other hand you think that the committees are just sort of staging grounds for various arguments, and in fact the real legislation is going to get written in the speaker’s office, well then it makes more sense to spend your time trying to do things that will endear you to the speaker. And that probably doesn’t mean investing in policy expertise, it mostly means raising money. And that’s very evident in the contemporary leader-dominated house.

So the less centralized House had a lot of virtues. The Senate back in the day, I also argue, had a lot of virtues as a place where the notion of comity was taken very, very seriously. The notion that every senator really mattered was sort of a bedrock principle of the place. And I make a defense of the filibuster, as it existed in the early 1960s right up through the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, because the filibuster back then operated in a very different way. It actually ground everything else in the chamber to a halt. And most of the time it resulted in a working-out of accommodations where the filibustering faction would be reconciled.

But the other thing it did was focus the nation’s attention and, in this sort of grand spectacle, really create a sense that what was going on in this legislative chamber really mattered and was a really live way of grappling with these issues. And in the end, I think that caused some very healthy political dynamics to play out that we sort of cut off today — where all the filibuster means today, of course, is that you need 60 votes instead of 51 votes. It’s not interesting at all. It doesn’t create any kind of spectacle, we get on with our other business. And I think the idea that we actually have to stop and listen to what a senator is saying on behalf of his constituents or her constituents — that’s a very attractive idea to me, that people have to be paid their due. I think there’s something about the way we conduct politics today that allows an awful lot of people to feel like they’re just being ignored, and I think that’s mostly to our detriment.

Geoff Kabaservice: I was fascinated by your chapter on the civil rights struggle as it played out in Congress, and also by your defense of the filibuster. I think you do point out that from today’s perspective, the Southerners who were defending Jim Crow were all racists, which is about the worst thing you can be considered nowadays. The idea of extending them deference seems wrong. And the fact that the filibuster meant that the passing of Jim Crow was delayed seems evil. So how can you actually say that the filibuster was good and having these Southern racists be heard and have their say was a good thing?

Philip Wallach: Well, the main part of the argument is about what made the law actually work…

Geoff Kabaservice: The 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Philip Wallach: …what made the Civil Rights Act actually succeed in desegregating the country, which was after all a monumental social change, and what made it endure rather than fall apart the next time the political winds shifted. And to my mind, having to go through the whole legislative process, which was so tortured and extended in large part because of the filibuster — not only but in large part because of it — that caused a different political dynamic than we would’ve had otherwise.

And the ecumenicism of the civil rights movement is really impressive to me. I’m willing to say it was partially a function of having to have won that battle in Congress, where it was so hard to win. And that kind of outreach they did (especially amongst Midwestern conservatives) to create a sense that everyone was in the coalition for civil rights except white Southerners, that was very powerful and ultimately made a very deep impression on the white Southerners themselves. They came to the end of their filibuster with a sense, not that they had been tactically outmaneuvered, but with a sense that they had been given their say and unfortunately had not been listened to and were now losing overwhelmingly.

Geoff Kabaservice:

They had been listened to. They had not convinced, they had not persuaded.

Philip Wallach: Yes, they had been listened to. They believed in the truth of their arguments about why this was going to cause federal tyranny. But at the same time, they believed that they had been fairly given their say. They liked the way that Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield had conducted the whole process. And at the end of the day, they said, “Okay, we lost. This is the law of the land. Constituents back home, you need to abide by the law of the land, much as we dislike it.” And they were such trusted emissaries of their communities that when they said that, they were really listened to.

And to my mind, I think there’s so much talk about “white backlash” that we kind of overlook the fact that desegregation actually came off with very, very little violence. Not like that put an end to all of our racial strife in America — far from it. But the actual achievement of desegregation came off very smoothly indeed, in the big picture. I think the fact that this congressional process played out at such length, and with such a sense that the big issues really had been aired out, the great debate had been had and won by the advocates of civil rights — that was such a stark contrast to, say, what happened after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling a decade earlier where the South said, “We’re not going to listen to these judges. We’re going to do everything in our power to resist, and see what you can do about it.”

Geoff Kabaservice: I agree, in that sense. I think the civil rights movement is usually portrayed as the result of Martin Luther King on the one hand and Lyndon Johnson on the other, and some historians will give greater weight or lesser weight to the grassroots activists and so forth. Your analysis points out that it was those things, but it also was the contribution of Congress, and also how sophisticated the civil rights movement was in its approach to Congress.

Philip Wallach: Right. If we think of the civil rights movement all as outsiders, we’re making a big mistake. Because their insider operation was extremely sophisticated, and ultimately they found a way… They found the system very frustrating, don’t get me wrong. They weren’t wanting to celebrate the virtues of this process in the same way that I would be. But they figured out how to play the game. A figure who I’ve really enjoyed learning about it is Clarence Mitchell, who was the chief lobbyist for the NAACP through all these fights. And he was known as “the hundred-and-first senator” because of what a great insider he was and how well he got along with people. And they knew how to work the process, and they worked it from the outside-in, and from the inside-out, and in sort of every direction.

I think that also the question of why it finally broke through on the agenda… I think people have a sense, “Well, it was because Kennedy got assassinated, and then after that Johnson knew that he could use his moment.” And there’s some truth to that. But it had already really gotten a significant push before Kennedy was assassinated. And that push was not coming from Kennedy himself, mostly. It was coming first and foremost in Congress.

I think liberal Republicans — a group that you have studied — ought to get their share of the credit. They sort of positioned themselves as, “Hey, maybe Republicans are going to be the party of civil rights here. We’re not the Solid South. We’re free of all that baggage and we’re going to push hard on these issues.” And people like John Lindsay, who was a member of the House before he ever became mayor of New York, were trying to make themselves the face of this issue. And that created a lot of pressure for the Democrats to compete with them — causing liberal Democrats to say, “Hey, we don’t want to get left behind here.”

Geoff Kabaservice: I agree with you. But I think you correctly point out the importance of William McCulloch of Ohio, who was not a liberal, who was actually pretty conservative on most scores. But he had worked in Jacksonville, Florida, had seen segregation firsthand, thought it was deeply un-American, and formed a really close working relationship with Clarence Mitchell to, in a sense, try to outbid the Democrats on the civil rights issue.

Philip Wallach: The important thing is it was true that it was easier for Republicans, because they did not have any Southern colleagues in their party essentially, so that gave them a lot more room to maneuver. But the Democrats had to respond. The liberal Democrats did not want to get completely outflanked. So there was actually this very virtuous competition on civil rights policy because of congressional competition. And because we end up… We think about the contest between Johnson and Goldwater in the 1964 election, where Goldwater identified his vision of what the Republican Party should be about with the old order and skepticism of the civil rights movement. He was an aberrational member of his own party. He was not typical at all.

Geoff Kabaservice: I agree. Ira Shapiro wrote a very good book called The Last Great Senate, and Ian would date the Last Great Senate to the 1960s and the late ’70s. When would you consider the last Pretty Good Congress to have been?

Philip Wallach: I wouldn’t like to think in quite such binary terms, to be honest. I think there’s still some pretty good things that have been happening recently. I don’t think Congress is a total basket case or anything. I think there’s plenty that happens there that’s good. I thought the last Congress, the first two years of Joe Biden’s term as president, did in fact have quite a lot of interesting bipartisan coalition-building, and I found that heartening. I think most of it happened in the Senate as opposed to the House, and Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats would sort of ratify what the Senate worked out on bipartisan terms. So that left something to be desired from the House, I think.

But I do have a sense that relations between the parties have decayed very badly, kind of continuously through the 21st century, or maybe even dating back to about 1990 even. So I think we’ve been drawing down on our capital for a long time and our sort of institutional memory of how compromise ought to work, of how legislators ought to get along with each other and treat each other.

I don’t think that culture… Again, I don’t think it’s completely bad today, but I think it’s been getting worse. And there’s all these cliches that people get tired of, but I think they’re cliches because there is some truth to them. I do think it’s a problem that members socialize with each other much less than they used to. I believe that’s true, and I believe it’s a big problem. I think they also work together less than they used to. I think in many ways the proliferation of subcommittee hearings, and just the demands of fundraising, have become so time-consuming that members meeting with each other in private settings is a relative rarity today. I think it happened a lot more a generation ago.

And I think that kind of stuff matters because I do think politics is relational. I think representative government has special virtues because of these relationships that people can forge, because of building up a sense of trust that you can use on an ongoing basis. And the more you’re just sort of seeing people as other folks who are showing up to vote, who you barely recognize, the less you get the benefits of that system. So I actually see it as a kind of… I know it’s disappointing to say. A lot of people would like me to say, “Newt Gingrich broke everything. Before Newt, it was all okay.”

Geoff Kabaservice: I was about to ask you that.

Philip Wallach: I see it as kind of a steady trend. I do point some fingers at Jim Wright and at Newt in the book. I think both of them saw advantages to the conflictual nature of politics and leaned into that tendency very hard, to their great advancement personally. I think they had colleagues who were trying to push in other directions who lost out. And so I think we can find plenty of people to point fingers at. But I actually don’t think there was just one watershed moment where things got bad.

Geoff Kabaservice: But I do think that Gingrich contributed significantly to the diminution of Congress by slashing its staff as one of his first actions. That really was a kind of lobotomization of Congress’ institutional skill and knowledge. And I think Gingrich also brought an ideological edge to the partisan warfare in the sense that he was campaigning against Congress as an institution and the Democrats as people who could not be negotiated with. Does he seem an innovator in that sense to you?

Philip Wallach: Well, I do think the one really remarkably consistent thread in his political career is this sort of anti-establishment and specifically anti-Congress strain of thinking. Back when he runs for Congress for the first time in the mid-‘70s, he’s already sounding these themes. And so I’m not sure how ideological I really think of that as being, to be honest. I think of it as… I think when people think of “ideologically,” they tend to think of a policy agenda or being a committed small-government libertarian or something, which is certainly an element of what was in the Republican mix at various times. But the really remarkable part of it to me was that even though Gingrich found himself as the leader of this institution, the House of Representatives, even then he was more committed to slashing at it and belittling it in many ways than he was in figuring out how to use its comparative advantages to his advantage now that he had the top job.

Geoff Kabaservice: One of the reasons that I think Gingrich was a sort of uniquely pernicious figure is that it seems to me that the Madisonian model of Congress that you’ve put forward really depends on provisional coalition building and what you called at another point in your book “the mutual seeking of workable compromises,” which generates policies that don’t conform to any side’s right answer. But ideology is the enemy of compromise in that sense. There can be no adjustment, because any adjustment is a betrayal.

Philip Wallach: Actually, when I look back at the 104th Congress, which is that first one after the Republicans took control, I think that actually a lot of decent compromising between the Republicans and Bill Clinton finally got around to happening. It was mostly after this energetic burst from Gingrich had burned itself out. Because he came in with this mandate idea — what I would say is a very explicitly Wilsonian idea — and he came in believing that he had practically been elected the shadow president. And people thought Bill Clinton was just kind of a joke after the ‘94 midterms. They thought, “Oh, well, he only got elected because of Ross Perot, and Republicans are going to win in a landslide in ‘96.” So in some way Gingrich just thought that he was riding this enormous wave that was changing everything about American politics. And I argue in the book that that served him very poorly; he just literally didn’t understand the political dynamics of the moment he was in very well at all. And he showed a remarkable incuriosity about the Senate.

The Senate did become controlled by Republicans, but Senate Republicans did not share a lot of the same enthusiasms as the House of Republicans did. And Gingrich really didn’t have that much of a plan to bring them on board with big parts of his agenda. So I think most of his big push just sort of ends up fizzling out and getting confused. He has these big fiscal showdowns with Clinton that I say don’t go very well for the Republicans at all. And then after that, he kind of picked up the pieces, and Newt kind of learns to do compromise by necessity. And Trent Lott becomes a much more important figure, and he’s a dealmaker at heart. And so some good dealmaking actually happens in that era, to my mind, even though you have this enormous oversized presence in the form of Gingrich coming in and trying to make the system work differently.

I think there’s less of the sort of underlying system operating in the background in recent years. I think the sort of muscle memory of how to do all that compromising has gotten weaker, except with some notable exceptions. But yeah, I sort of worry that when people do their cartoony version of Congress today, where they just sort of think, “Well, it’s what Chuck Schumer wants, or what Kevin McCarthy tries to get his people together to want” — that’s actually closer to a good approximation of how things are today than it would’ve been in the mid-1990s.

Geoff Kabaservice: So you end your book in a very interesting way, where you actually are having three hypothetical observers in the year 2039 talk about how Congress turned out on the year of its 250th anniversary. And the three scenarios that you paint in this future are number one, Decrepitude; number two, Rubber Stamp; and number three, Revival. And all of these scenarios are in a sense a spinning-out of trends that we can already see at work in the present. So can you take me through those scenarios?

Philip Wallach: Yes, gladly. So Decrepitude is just sort of more of the same, leading to greater and greater marginalization of Congress, a sense that working around the institution is really the only choice on a lot of issues. So we’ll see more and more executive branch circumvention of Congress, and judges more and more sympathetic to those maneuvers over time. And really a general diminution of respect for the institution because of a sense that it’s just sort of messing things up, but a failure to do anything much about it. So it actually becomes sort of a thorn in America’s side, as maybe some people see it as being today. That’s the Decrepitude scenario.

The Rubber Stamp scenario says, “Well, what if people who see Congress as a nuisance and want to do big reforms to make it less of a nuisance get their way?” So this is really a central tension in the reform community, as I see it. I think there’s some reformers who want to make our institutions more vital. And there are some reformers largely animated by little-d democratic ideas who want to make sure that majorities can work their will without too much getting in their way. And so this Rubber Stamp scenario says, “What if we actually get that Congress? We wipe away the filibuster, maybe we even implement some kind of constitutional amendment that allows the president to force his bills onto the agenda and get votes. What would that look like if we sort of end up with a Congress that rubber-stamps things, that it doesn’t jam things up anymore? We can just count on it to give its assent in a formalized sort of way.”

I had some fun with that chapter. I did a little bit of reading about legislatures in authoritarian countries, because it is a remarkable fact that pretty much every country in the world has a legislature, even the ones we just think are obviously dictatorships. They all have their legislatures, and the legislatures do things. They meet, they have sessions, they pass laws. And in some places, everyone knows that this is just sort of a charade that happens and always turns out the way the dictator wants it to. So the point of the Rubber Stamp chapter is to try to show how if Congress does become a rubber stamp, a lot of the vitality will have drained out of American politics and we will really be at the mercy of our executive branch. And we can hope that that goes better or worse, and hope for wise rulers. But I’m not one to want to count on that myself. So that chapter, I think, is a stark warning that certain kinds of reform are maybe the cure is worse than the disease. That’s the message there.

So then the last one is the Revival, which tries to imagine how Congress becomes a more interesting Madisonian place again, and a place with more fluid interplay of factions. And that one in some ways was the hardest to write, because I do think it’s going to take some kind of jolt. I think that the trends that have got us to where we are hard to reverse. So I come up with a scenario where we have… And going back to my thinking about the Whigs, the way that the Whig system got disrupted was that slavery finally became an issue that just totally cut across the existing party system and blew things open, and everything had to change. And of course, it did not have very happy consequences for the country…

Geoff Kabaservice: Shall we say.

Philip Wallach: But I’ve come to kind of think that we need something big to bust, bust open… Maybe political realignment and congressional revival may go together. That’s part of how I see the overthrow of Cannon as well. So the way I do that in the book is imagining sort of an immigration refugee crisis an order of magnitude worse than the one we have on our hands today, and say maybe that sort of shakes things up. And you’ll have Arizona Democrats believing immigration is the top-line priority for them, and they’ll end up making strange bedfellows with some Republicans.

Anyway, I try to imagine things shaken up, and I actually have a speakership fight play out where sort of a cross-partisan coalition dictates a more open kind of debate, such that we can fully grapple with this national crisis. And the point is that the happy scenario for Congress isn’t that it becomes sort of a place where everyone gets along nicely, it’s that it actually becomes a place where we feel like the fights that are happening are very alive and vital, and this is where we’re actually doing the work of figuring out the country’s future. And the country becomes invested in the institution and the players in it because we feel like the work is being done there.

I think that on immigration, especially, that just seems like it would be so healthy for us. The way we conduct our immigration system today is really like it’s in front of us, so we’ve gotten used to it, but it’s really legitimately crazy, right? We’re running all this stuff through a section of bureaucratic code designed under COVID and just trying to hold it all together with paperclips and rubber cement. It doesn’t make any sense at all. We’ve sort of given up on the idea that Congress is going to sort things out, but we really do need them to do so. And I’m actually a firm believer that if they were given the opportunity, we might come up with a plan that could get 300 votes in the House and 70 votes in the Senate. I don’t think that’s farfetched. But we’re not pursuing the kinds of processes that would discover whether I’m right or not. We’ve just sort of decided at the outset that it’s better to call each other names and not go through the rest of that hassle.

Geoff Kabaservice: In the absence of a paradigm-shifting volcanic explosion in Central America or the like, how much importance do you give to reformers who want to see things like an expansion of the House, or reformed campaign finance laws, or ranked-choice voting in place of the traditional party primaries?

Philip Wallach: I like ranked-choice voting a lot. I’ve always been enthusiastic about it, and it’s helped us get one of our more interesting members of Congress, Jared Golden of Maine, who’s certainly someone who’s eager to find his own path rather than just being a loyal foot soldier for his party. I think campaign finance reform, I’m most interested in that as a way of getting members to be able to focus on their jobs, their core legislative jobs, instead of having to dial for dollars all the time. And expanding the House… I think that sounds like an interesting shot in the arm, and in that sense I may be sympathetic to making the experiment. But I’m actually a little bit skeptical. Somebody told me today that in Patrick Deneen’s new book, he proposes making the House have 6,000 members…

Geoff Kabaservice: That’s right.

Philip Wallach: Well, I do not like that idea, because James Madison has a pretty good discussion of how if you make a legislature big enough, it starts to experience the dynamics of a mob. And I think that sounds like a very sound insight. And we can argue about exactly what the threshold might be, but 6,000 is way on one side of it. And in the Rubber Stamp chapter, in fact, the House gets expanded to 1,776 members, and that’s way too big also. You can’t function like a legislature at that point. The Chinese People’s Congress, as it happens, has about 3,000 members, I think. But that’s one of those places where nobody fools themselves in thinking that really a lot of very important decisions are getting made in that assembly. All the decisions are getting made somewhere else. So I’m afraid that that’s what that means for Congress. If we try to make the House like that, it totally loses its ability to function as a place where coalitions can find a way to coordinate. The more bodies you get in motion, the less chance that this relational politics can actually take place and make things work in the end. That’s where I stand on expansion of the House.

And in general, I feel actually inclined to defend the status quo of the Senate against its very many detractors. I think it’s kind of healthy that we have these different operative principles on the kind of terms that senators serve and the kind of constituencies they have, rather than just… Again, if your criteria is just: “Is this institution faithful to little-d democratic values that basically all boil down to one man, one vote?” — then yeah, I guess the Senate looks kind of bad. But to my mind, the American constitutional system has an awful lot of virtues that we should appreciate that don’t boil down to that principle, and the Senate actually preserves some of those other values. And so I’m wary of those who want to reform the Senate, even if I am sympathetic to certainly a lot of the complaints about the way the body operates today.

Geoff Kabaservice: So your book concludes with a Postscript, which is an open letter from you to America’s legislators. And you point out that Congress really is on its way to obsolescence, and you say, “This is a humble plea directed at you — yes, you. You need to do something different if you want your chamber to punch at its constitutional weight. You need to think differently about the body you are part of and about the responsibility that comes with the privilege of holding your office.” Do you think the members of Congress can rise to this challenge?

Philip Wallach: I’m trying to speak to a sympathy that I think is already there. I don’t think I’m trying to just implant totally new ideas for them. I think that they’re genuinely ambivalent about the way things are today, and I’m trying to push them. I’m trying to be the little angel on one shoulder, I hope, doing a good job making the case for one way of thinking about it. I do think these people are ambitious, and they want good things for America. And they’re frustrated that the way their jobs work today, they don’t get to pursue that as much as they thought they would.

On the other hand, I think that they are sincere partisans. I myself have been a political independent my whole life, and thus that may just be a defect in my nature. And so in some ways, sympathizing with genuine, sincere political partisans is not the easiest thing for me to do. But I do recognize the sincerity of it: people who feel like it really does matter which party wins, and they want their party to be the one that wins, and they want to do everything they can to make sure that happens.

And my sense is that they’ve kind of been sold a bill of goods about exactly what that entails. So I’m trying to dissuade them from believing that being loyal party foot soldiers is really so important to their party doing well at the next election. I think it’s much more important that they act like legislators for our constitutional system than it is for their party at the next national election, to be honest. But I do recognize that it takes some breaking-out of habits of mind that are sincerely formed in a very partisan era.

And in some ways it seems like we’re overdue for realignment, to me. I would’ve thought that because of Donald Trump, and I would’ve thought maybe COVID was an interesting opportunity to shake us out of partisan ruts. I was wrong about those things, and so I’m reluctant to place too strong a bet as a predictor of future trends of things getting shaken up. I do recognize it’s just not easy. And there is a prisoner’s dilemma, a collective action problem at work here. Just being one person who does the right thing may not end up being so rewarding. Whereas there’s this whole other way of going, which is to basically opt out of believing in the system at all and just use, as my boss Yuval Levin, says, just use the place as a platform for your own personal ambitions to become a famous person and not really work as a legislator, but work as somebody who’s going to become famous.

And that’s not crazy. The people who are doing that are, I think, genuinely kind of talented people. I’m trying to make the case for the more institutionally inclined amongst their colleagues to say, “It is worth it to invest in this institution. There is the latent potential here for it to work in a way that advantages people like you, the workhorses, the frustrated workhorses on Capitol Hill. And you ought to be pushing for an organization of your chamber that will help that happen.” I think that it just needs to be on people’s agenda. It needs to be on their minds. I think it is a real latent possibility there.

And I think some of what we’ve seen in the 118th Congress suggests there is some kind of unsettling amongst the existing coalitions. Nancy Pelosi’s not the Speaker ever again. That creates this moment of opportunity on the Democratic side the next time they find themselves in the majority. We don’t know what will happen then. I think some interesting things could happen. These are very complicated coalitions today. I don’t think they’re just ideologically tidy coalitions. And so I think the potential is there. I’m not just blowing smoke, but I do understand that the people who have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are good at their jobs.

Geoff Kabaservice: Well, Phil Wallach, I hope that the frustrated congressional workhorses will heed your counsel. And congratulations for having written this great book, Why Congress, which shines such a piercing light into the messy entrails of our representative democracy. Thank you for being with me today.

Philip Wallach: Thanks, Geoff.

Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating, or send us an email at Thanks as always to our technical director Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.

Image Credit: The House in Session (According to the Minority Point of View); 4/6/1908; (A-027); Berryman Political Cartoon Collection, 1896 – 1949; Records of the U.S. Senate, 1789 – 2015, Record Group 46; National Archives Building, Washington, DC. [Online Version,, July 5, 2023]