Share this
PREVIOUS ARTICLE ALL CONTENTS Next ARTICLE

Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays, Donald R. Wolfensberger

Reviewed by Ryan D. Williamson

BUY

In 2017, then Speaker of the House Paul Ryan broke the record for most closed rules in a single session. Ironically, this feat came only two years after vowing to lead the House in a more open and inclusive manner than his recent predecessors had. This about-face was not new or unique to Ryan, though. Indeed, he was simply the next in a string of Speakers over the previous few decades to promise greater debate, only to renege shortly thereafter.

Chronicling this decline of deliberation in Congress is the focus of Donald R. Wolfensberger’s work. The former Republican staff director for the House Rules Committee offers a detailed yet accessible insight into how Congress has evolved in recent history. Beginning with a brief discussion of the history of majoritarian politics in Congress, Wolfensberger specifically looks at a litany of case studies from the last two decades. Topics cover a wide range, including health care reform, budgets and deficits, and the Iran nuclear deal, to name a few. Within each, a common theme pervades—the majority party must “rely on extraordinary consultation, pressures, and compromises within its own ranks, as well as on a creative use of the rules, to eke out a victory on contentious legislation” (p. 57).

In short, Changing Cultures in Congress provides a rich collection of detailed anecdotes that chronicle both parties’ attempts to use congressional procedure as a means to enact their preferred policies. As Wolfensberger notes throughout, both parties lament such strong-handed, exclusionary tactics while serving in the minority, but they employ those same lamentable strategies and behaviors once they win a majority. In this era of extreme polarization, this back and forth has simply replaced seeking compromises and bipartisan solutions as the new norm.

Wolfensberger points to Congress’s “perpetual campaign” as the primary culprit behind this evolution. He recognizes that polarization is unlikely to subside and that neither party is likely to become oppressively dominant given the country’s distribution of voters. Therefore, he suggests that reform would likely require some sort of crisis that begets a bipartisan consensus or a fundamental change in how Congress views its responsibilities. Though possible, these solutions seem unlikely, which suggests that the current norms in Congress may persist for many years still.

Additionally, though the book relies on purely qualitative anecdotal evidence to explore the evolution of procedural uses and abuses of power by the majority party of the House of Representatives, Wolfensberger includes an appendix of descriptive statistics as well. These five tables outline the increased frequency with which the Speaker and Rules Committee exert control over the content of legislation at the expense of the minority party as well as rank-and-file members of the majority. These numbers are particularly striking and illustrative, but they are undersold in the text.

In sum, Changing Cultures in Congress speaks to scholars of the legislative branch, those working within it, as well as those simply seeking to better understand it. Given its timeliness and the seemingly intractable levels of polarization and partisan animosity, it is likely to be informative for many years to come as well.

About PSQ's Editor

ROBERT Y. SHAPIRO

Full Access

Join the Academy of Political Science and automatically receive Political Science Quarterly.

CONFERENCES & EVENTS

WEBINAR
Policing: The Change America is Awaiting
July 23, 2020
7:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. EST

MORE ABOUT THIS EVENT VIEW ALL EVENTS

Editor’s spotlight

Race and Public Policy

Social Policy and the Welfare of Black Americans: From Rights to Resources
Charles V. Hamilton

Getting into the Black: Race, Wealth, and Public Policy
Dalton Conley

MORE ABOUT THIS TOPIC

Search the Archives

Publishing since 1886, PSQ is the most widely read and accessible scholarly journal with distinguished contributors such as: Lisa Anderson, Robert A. Dahl, Samuel P. Huntington, Robert Jervis, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Theda Skocpol, Woodrow Wilson

view additional issues

Most read

Articles | Book reviews

Understanding the Bush Doctrine
Robert Jervis

The Study of Administration
Woodrow Wilson

Notes on Roosevelt's "Quarantine" Speech
Dorothy Borg

view all

New APS Book

Presidential Selection and Democracy   PRESIDENTIAL SELECTION AND DEMOCRACY

About US

Academy of Political Science

The Academy of Political Science, promotes objective, scholarly analyses of political, social, and economic issues. Through its conferences and publications APS provides analysis and insight into both domestic and foreign policy issues.

Political Science Quarterly

With neither an ideological nor a partisan bias, PSQ looks at facts and analyzes data objectively to help readers understand what is really going on in national and world affairs.

Stay Connected

newsstand locator
About APS