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Wilson: Congressional government

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Wilson. 1885. Congressional government.


"The legal processes of constitutional change are so slow and cumbersome that we have been constrained to adopt a serviceable framework of fictions which enable us easily to preserve the forms without laboriously obeying the spirit of the Constitution, which will stretch as the nation grows." P. 242

How the Institutions Have Changed from What They were Intended to Be

  • Congress: There has been a growth and predominance of congressional power as the result of increased efficiency of organization. This is evident in congressional influence in the appointment process (increasing control over both nominations and confirmations), treaty process (ability to stall treaties in committee), the supervision of executive administrative agencies, and appropriations (delineated as opposed to appropriations of for the whole).
  • Executive: The method of choosing the President has changed considerably from the intent of the Constitution. The initial idea behind the electoral system was to have trustworthy, nonpartisan men elect the President. The creation of party conventions took choice away from electors since they, in practice, must vote for their party's pre-selected candidate. It also took away power from congress whose caucuses chose electors until 1832. Finally, elections by party conventions also caused candidates to suppress unpopular political tenants and rewarded short political records.
  • Federal System: Wilson asserts that there was a change the condition of government that made checks and balances become less effective. The most important check envisioned by the founders, the check between state and national powers, has been the least effectual. Increased federal power is evident in both policy, such as through interstate commerce, as well as sentiment. It is the federal government that has ultimate power in deciding the jurisdictions of state governments--so federal power constantly grows. The only recourse of the states in arresting the growth of congressional power is also in the federal branch, namely the Supreme Court.

Predominance of Congressional Committees

Wilson remarks that our legislature should be viewed as a conglomerate, not a homogeneous body. Referring to the committees, he notes that, "we are ruled by a score and a half of 'little legislatures'." While committees in the UK House of Commons merely investigate and report legislation, committees in the U.S. Congresses actually originate and conduct legislation.

  • Wilson argues that Congress has no visible, thus no controllable, party organization. Legislation is the aggregate of committee bargaining, thus mixing the minority and majority party opinions. Committee reports representations the will of a few individuals, not of the unified party in power as a whole. This contrasts greatly with parliamentary systems where all bills introduced represent that entire coalition's stance.
  • Debates in congress have little effect on the minds of the people. People are willing to pay attention to select leaders, not 40 plus standing committee chairmen. The US congress does not have national leaders that the public looks towards for guidance on policy.
  • Congressionally, the US financial administration is in the hands of 24 congressional committees. Divisions include a chasm between all taxing and spending. Unlike the English parliament, the US Congress does have direct contact with the financial officers in the executive. This means that the House is much less acquainted with the details of the Federal Treasury than the English House of Commons.