Summary

The United States Congress has been described as dysfunctional, gridlocked, polarized, hyperpartisan, chaotic, and do-nothing. In Changing Cultures in Congress, congressional scholar Donald R. Wolfensberger explains the institutional dynamics behind Congress’s devolution from a respected legislative institution to a body plagued by a win-at-any-cost mentality and a culture of perpetual campaigning.

In both a historical and present-day account of congressional dysfunction, Wolfensberger explores the causes of legislative standstill and the methods used by majorities and minorities that have led to today’s policy paralysis. He describes how Congress has gradually abandoned its commitment to fair and neutral procedures that safeguard both majority rule and minority rights in favor of “power House rules”―procedures and processes that advantage the majority party’s electoral goals as opposed to neutral rules that preserve minority party and individual member rights to full participation in the legislative process. Through historical sketches and case studies from the past decade under both Republican and Democratic majorities, he shows how both parties have gamed what the founders intended would be an impartial set of legislative rules into a system that advantages majorities and marginalizes minorities. Digging deeper than superficial partisan explanations, Wolfensberger gives a thorough and persuasive explanation for our legislative leaders’ inability to find substantive policy solutions that are in the national interest.

Chapters

Chapter One: Rolling Rules: From Level Ground to Partisan Tilt

Chapter Two: Making House Rules

Chapter Three: Procedural Triage for Health Care Reform

Chapter Four: Fraying Purse Strings

Chapter Five: Whither the War Power?

Chapter Six: Congress and the Iran Nuclear Deal

Chapter Seven: Governing in a Political World

Reviews

This important book is a must-read for all of us interested in the precipitous decline in the role of Congress in our political system, as it yields power to the president, abandons fair procedures, and struggles to find solutions to our political problems. Written by Don Wolfensberger, one of our keenest observers of Congress (and a colleague of mine for many years), his solutions should surprise and please you. ---Lee H. Hamilton, former U.S. Representative, Indiana

When it comes to the US House of Representatives, few people can surpass Don Wolfensberger. He has been working for it and thinking about it for almost forty years. His book, Changing Cultures in Congress, is an interesting and readable history of the House. More importantly, it’s about solutions to stop the current gridlock in Congress. ---Trent Lott, former Senate majority leader

Wolfensberger combines a practitioner’s eye and feel for Capitol Hill dynamics with an appreciation for broader analytical themes of interest to legislative and other American politics scholars. This book offers a procedural perspective on contemporary legislative dynamics, focusing on the ways in which partisan politics drives the diminution of the legislative process. It draws appropriately from historical cases and contemporary politics to make plain the long roots of today’s dysfunction on Capitol Hill. ---Sarah Binder, George Washington University and the Brookings Institution

A superb exploration of recent trends in the deliberative capacity of Congress, Wolfensberger's book will be of great interest to scholars, students, and practitioners. His treatment of the complex relationships that can exist between House procedures and party strategy is suitably nuanced, and the careful case studies of major domestic and foreign policy legislation are informative and fun to read. This is the best single treatment we have of procedural maneuvering on Capitol Hill. ---C. Lawrence Evans, College of William and Mary

About the Author
Image of Donald Wolfensberger
Donald Wolfensberger

Donald R. Wolfensberger previously directed the Congress Project at the Wilson Center after spending twenty-eight years as a staff member in the U.S. House of Representatives, including as staff director of the House Rules Committee. He worked on this book during his time as a fellow at the Center. Read More