Modernization of Congress

May 24, 1943

Report Outline
Criticism of Congress in Periods of Emergency
Renovation of Congressional Committee System
Streamlining Suggestions of the Experts

Criticism of Congress in Periods of Emergency

Criticism of Congress has increased materially in volume and in sharpness since the United States entered the war. Public questioning of the capacity of the Legislative Branch to deal adequately with present-day problems has been reflected in the press, in public discussions, in the writings of students of government and public affairs. Books dealing with the alleged shortcomings of Congress have multiplied. In the main the critics accuse the Federal Legislature of lack of vision, of undue subservience to pressure groups, of waste motion and obsolete methods of procedure. Some of the critics propose specific reforms; a few demand nothing less than a complete reorganization of the whole governmental structure.

Criticism of Congress in Periods of Emergency

“Picking on Congress” is an old American custom—a custom older than the Constitution itself. The Continental Congress, which was the nearest approach to a national government for fifteen years before the present Congress came into being, was under a constant fire of criticism and ridicule during the last decade of its existence. In many ways the Continental Congress was an inept body, but its chief faults were an inevitable result of its lack of authority. Under the Articles of Confederation it could spend money, but it had no taxing powers to raise money; for funds it was a pensioner of the states. Congress had the duty to raise armies to fight the War for Independence, but for troop levies it was again dependent on the states. Though Congress fixed state quotas for the armies, the states never lived up to them; as a result General Washington said he often had “hardly enough men even to run away with.” At the most critical period of the Revolution, Washington had to send badly needed reinforcements home because he could not feed, arm or clothe them, and the national treasury was empty. The Continental Congress received the blame for 211 such failures. Washington's first term as President was the first presidential “honeymoon,” but early in his second term a storm broke over Congress, and the administration as well, on the ratification by the Senate of the treaty John Jay signed with England in 1794. A few years later, during the Adams administration, Congress ran into another outburst of public wrath after it passed the sedition laws which in effect made it a crime to criticize the President or the Legislative Branch. According to historians, these laws were a major factor in the downfall of the Federalist party.

Critics of Congress naturally tend to multiply in times of stress, especially in a war emergency. The force of events in wartime relegates the legislature to a minor role, though an abnormally exacting one. Staggering urgencies are constantly pressed upon the lawmakers; they must approve unprecedented expenditures, to be met by unprecedented taxes and loans, and are called upon to validate novel and far-reaching policies. Speed is of the essense, and leisurely debate is out of the question. A formidable array of new war bureaus springs up almost over night. The bureaus make executive decisions and manage the behind-the-lines war effort. In the nature of things their varied functions are coordinated under the Commander-in-Chief. Though Congress still holds the purse-strings, it is overshadowed by the war agencies of the Executive Branch, It can ask questions, in an effort to eliminate waste or corruption or maladministration, but unless its questions prove productive constituents write in demanding that Congress stop interfering with the war. If questions are not asked, other constituents demand to know why Congress has allowed itself to become a mere “rubber stamp.”

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Constitution and Separation of Powers
Sep. 07, 2012  Re-examining the Constitution
Jan. 29, 1988  Treaty Ratification
Mar. 27, 1987  Bicentennial of the Constitution
Jan. 31, 1986  Constitution Debate Renewed
Mar. 16, 1979  Calls for Constitutional Conventions
Jul. 04, 1976  Appraising the American Revolution
Sep. 12, 1973  Separation of Powers
Jul. 12, 1972  Treaty Ratification
Apr. 19, 1967  Foreign Policy Making and the Congress
Mar. 05, 1947  Contempt of Congress
May 10, 1945  The Tariff Power
Jul. 01, 1943  Executive Agreements
Jun. 01, 1943  Advice and Consent of the Senate
May 24, 1943  Modernization of Congress
Jan. 18, 1943  The Treaty Power
Aug. 24, 1942  Congress and the Conduct of War
May 09, 1940  Congressional Powers of Inquiry
Nov. 09, 1939  Participation by Congress in Control of Foreign Policy
Apr. 21, 1937  Revision of the Constitution
Feb. 24, 1936  Advance Opinions on Constitutional Questions
Oct. 04, 1935  Federal Powers Under the Commerce Clause
Jun. 19, 1935  The President, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court
Sep. 10, 1928  The Senate and the Multilateral Treaty
Dec. 16, 1926  The Senate's Power of Investigation
Oct. 03, 1924  Pending Proposals to Amend the Constitution