What You Need to Know About the US Congress

Washington DC Capitol dome detail with waving american flag © Andrea Izzotti / shutterstock.com

The US has globally projected itself as the leader of democracy through its worldwide mass media, huge economy and massive military expenditures. A close look at the country contradicts that notion, revealing that American democracy, especially the US Congress, needs extensive reforms before it can legitimately claim to be democratic.

The US Congress consists of the House of Representatives (House) and the Senate. Over time, the House has abdicated its responsibility, especially its exercise of war powers, to the president. The White House now has “free rein to go to war so long as it notifies Congress first.” The House has also implicitly relinquished to the president its powers to regulate international affairs and trade. The president may also freely issue regulations and executive orders without going through Congress. This silent transfer of power has strengthened the president in relation to the other two branches of government, the Congress and the judiciary. By transferring so much power to the executive, the US Congress has undermined the constitutional ideal of a balance of power.

The US Congress has also become weak because of the influence of money in politics. Members of Congress spend more and more of their time fundraising, diminishing their ability to legislate. Increasingly, Congresswomen and Congressmen represent their donors more than their constituents. Open Secrets tells us that Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy raised over $27 million and the former speaker Nancy Pelosi raised over $25 million in 2021-22.

Because of this influence of money in politics, Congress is increasingly under the thumb of interest groups. Some of these groups are beholden to foreign states. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is infamous for its hold on Congress. AIPAC has poured millions of dollars to defeat progressive pro-Palestinian candidates in Democrat congressional primaries. On rare occasions that members of Congress speak out against Israel’s influence, such as Representative Ilhan Omar in 2019, they are quickly ostracized.

AIPAC has also opposed Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran as the former president has admitted in his memoirs. Sadly, the Congress sometimes puts foreign interests above American ones, endangering peace, prosperity and national security itself.

Other ills afflict the Congress as well. Pork-barrel projects, earmarks and poison bills, often referred to as “legislative extortion,” interfere with legislation. The Congress has failed to deliver for the people. They have not drafted laws for a healthy economy. Over 32% of the wealth is owned by 1-percent of the wealthiest Americans. Over 11% of Americans live below the poverty level and 60% “live pay-check-to-paycheck.” At such a time, the Congress is deeply divided. Both Republicans and Democrats care more about hurting the other in an adversarial system than acting together in national interest.

Even both parties themselves are deeply divided. It took 15 rounds of voting for Republicans to elect Kevin McCarthy as the speaker of the House. The Congress only unites to pass things in the interest of their donors. The Congress has drafted tax bills, which give tax cuts to the rich and pass on the tax burden to the middle class.

There are representational issues too. The District of Columbia with a population just short of 700,000, far more than Wyoming, and Puerto Rico with a population of nearly 3,200,000, greater than 21 states, have no voice on the House’s bills. The same is true for Guam, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands, and other US territories.

In 1789, the first House had 65 members serving 3.9 million people, one for every 60,000 persons. Now, 435 members serve 334 million, one for every 767,816 persons. It is now difficult for one person to represent so many different and varied constituents.

It is not just the president who dominates the House. Today, the Senate has grown in power too. It dictates terms and conditions. In reality, this has turned the bicameral legislature into a unicameral one. The House now has to either ignore or “rubber-stamp Senate bills”.

The US Senate is not exactly democratic. Every state gets two senators. This means that Wyoming with the population of less than 583,279 has the same representation, privilege, and vote as California with a population of about 39 million. In the US Senate, the vote of a resident of Wyoming equals the votes of 69 Californians. The consecrated tradition of Senate filibuster speeches designed to postpone or neuter legislative action illustrate the principle of the tyranny of a minority over the majority.

As of 2023, according to the World Population Review, the 50 states have a combined population of about 334 million. Mathematical logic tells us that the 26 states with the smallest populations collectively send 52 senators to Congress. Those 26 states wield a simple majority in the Senate, although they only represent 58.7 million citizens or 17.6% of the entire population. That means that the remaining minority of 48 senators represents over 82.4% of the US population. If you were to remove the eight most populated states from a Senate vote, it would take 42 states (84 senators) to represent a simple majority of the US population (52%). In other words, the will of a small minority of the US population represented in the Senate is always likely to prevail over the needs and wishes of all US citizens.

Like the House, the Senate leaves a significant portion of American citizens unrepresented. The constitution excludes from the federal electoral system the entire population of the District of Columbia (DC), Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and other US territories, despite the fact that they collectively have a population greater than that of some states.

The US Constitution, ratified in 1788, gave state legislatures the right to elect senators. Over time, this corrupted the process of selecting senators. Hence, the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913 and, since then, senators have been elected by popular vote. Unfortunately, that amendment failed to solve the problem of corruption for senatorial elections. Today the average cost of running for senate runs into millions of dollars. This funding is usually provided “openly and directly” by the wealthy through PACs and lobbying groups.

When elected, a senator’s loyalty is first to the rich who bankrolled their election. That is why legislators vote to spend funds lavishly on dubious projects in the service of the wealthy and their corporations, with little or no consideration of the needs of the common people. This produces volumes of legislation whose logic most Americans simply cannot fathom. The Senate consistently fails to represent the people’s needs, interests, concerns, or welfare.

The various ills of the US Congress have been steadily growing. It is now deeply corrupt and highly undemocratic. Before lecturing the rest of the world on adopting democratic norms, the US must put its own house in order and reform its Congress.

By Mehdi Alavi

This article was originally edited by Hannah Gage and published in Fair Observer on May 21, 2023.