Congress’ inability to take up the substantive issues of the day and its constant partisan conflict are eroding what trust remains of the American people in the institution, further undermining their broader faith in government as a whole.
It is vital, therefore, that Congress change itself to become a more capable and responsive legislative body. Just as important, the voices of the public need to be heard through the static of our current shrill political discourse.
These improvements will require changes in behaviors and attitudes by actors inside and outside the congressional system. They will also require significant change to the way Congress currently conducts its legislative business, and a restoration of its internal capacity to form informed public policy. Because of this complexity, we employed systems thinking to map the roots of Congress’ current state.
With input from former members of Congress, Capitol Hill staffers, lobbyists, journalists, and scholars studying Congress, the Democracy Fund has generated an initial map that we hope will provide a holistic picture of congressional dysfunction and improve our understanding of how the institution can better fulfill its obligations to the American people. This work builds from efforts of our partners, the Madison Initiative of the Hewlett Foundation.
The Congress & Public Trust systems map, which you can explore here, considers how the actions and choices by rank and file members, House and Senate leadership, journalists, Hill staffers, and citizens interact to create the current state of Congress.
The multiple factors are organized in a series of subsystems or “loops.” Loops are characterized by the connections made between individual factors, and reflect how the increase (+) or decrease (-) in the significance of a given factor affects other related factors. Taken together in the context of their respective relationships, these factors yield a “core story” with positive and negative dimensions.
The image below is a closeup of a “core story” that emerged within our broader analysis. It illustrates how Congress’ growing inability to process the increasing demands placed on it leads to decreasing capacity of the institution to function and reduced satisfaction in its performance.
The current state of close competition for congressional majorities – something of an anomaly in the history of the institution – is further exacerbating the level of dysfunction and dissatisfaction. Greater competition for majorities has driven the parties further and further apart ideologically, giving rise to robust hyperpartisan attitudes and behaviors among the voting public and members of Congress. Hyperpartisanship weakens congressional capacity to function and the productive relationships between members upon which substantive legislation typically depends.
At the same time, Congress has weakened its capacity to function further by reducing its resources and infrastructure. These reductions have paved the way for outside interests to have greater influence over the legislative process, further curtailing Congress’ ability to think for itself and reducing public trust in the institution.
The Congress & Public Trust systems map is not the final statement about how the congressional system should be understood: rather, we hope it serves as a useful tool that will be refined through the input of others concerned about the institution of Congress. The map will change with new insights and developments in how actors in the system behave.
Kumu — a Hawaiian term for “teacher” or “source of wisdom”— is a powerful visualization platform the Democracy Fund uses for mapping systems and better understanding relationships. We invite you to explore the map and its elements in Kumu. As you do, we hope you will provide suggestions for improvement in describing the congressional system.
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