Very little about current headlines would make a political observer impressed with today’s Congress. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) is searching for the votes to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and pass a long-term spending bill to keep the government open. There is at best a halfhearted attempt in Congress to investigate potential contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.
But even if the contemporary Congress appears relatively ineffectual, we should not lose sight of the lasting, consequential influence of Congress on American life. To see that influence, the place to turn is Yale University political scientist David R. Mayhew’s excellent new book “The Imprint of Congress.”
Mayhew is our most distinguished scholar of Congress, the author of many landmark works, including “Divided We Govern.” His latest book weaves together themes from his lifetime of scholarship on representation and lawmaking along with many fresh insights to produce his most comprehensive statement yet on the mark that Congress has made on American politics and society.
Unlike observers who examine Congress’ failure to pass proposals urged by experts, Mayhew does not focus on what Congress “should” have done. Rather, he looks at what Congress actually did (for better and for worse) over the span of American history. Mayhew examines the participation of the government in 13 large political and intellectual “impulses,” which capture the country’s biggest policymaking endeavors — from launching the new nation to building an industrial economy to constructing a welfare state to controlling the debt and deficit. This figure displays them:
Mayhew’s investigation turns up five key lessons about Congress and policymaking.
1. Many aspects of U.S. government performance are generic and typical, not exceptional
Mayhew observes that impulses frequently occur in many countries at roughly the same time, not only in the United States. For example, the postwar drive for civil rights and the termination of white-only immigration policies took place in many democracies. Similarly, the shift toward economic neoliberalism during the 1970s was a global phenomenon. To be sure, U.S. public policy is distinctive in some key respects. As Mayhew writes about the American welfare state, “The United States came to social provision late, has kept its public spending relatively low, and has nourished a mix of pensions and health insurance that depends uncommonly on the private sector.” But in many domains, American exceptionalism is hard to detect.
2. The common claim that polarization is at an all-time high is “bizarre”