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Social Science History 24.2 (2000) 367-378

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Congress and the Welfare State:
Some Historical Reflections

James T. Patterson

Roundtable: The U.S. Congress in the Twentieth Century

Thanks in part to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, the popular reputation of Congress has recently plummeted to perhaps an all-time low. As the Senate deliberated in late January 1999, Jay Leno captured what seemed to be widespread disgust with Capitol Hill. He cracked, “We’ve reached a point where Congress does not affect anyone’s life, so we look at it as entertainment. It’s like the Jerry Springer show, except everyone has a law degree. They can’t fix health care, they can’t fix Social Security, so we look at them to provide a few laughs on a daily basis” (Providence Journal 1999). [End Page 367]

Leno’s wisecrack adds to a long history of jokes and laments about Congress, which throughout this century has taken far more hits from the public than has the executive branch. To listen only briefly to such criticism is to hear that Congress is inefficient, unresponsive, obstructionist, irresponsible, and undemocratic in its operations. Most often we are told that Congress suffers from two related weaknesses: it rolls over to please powerful interest groups, and it cravenly dreads reprisal from constituents. As Michael Wines of the New York Times put it:

[T]he principal problem [with Congress] is not that it listens too little, but that it listens—and is shouted at—too much. . . . Modern Washington is wired for quadrophonic sound and wide-screen video, lashed by fax, computer, 800 number, overnight poll, FedEx, grassroots mail, air shuttle and CNN to every citizen in every village on the Continent and Hawaii, too. . . . The cumulative effect has been to turn a somewhat slow and contemplative system into something like a 500-channel democracy, with the clicker grasped tightly in the hands of the electorate. (Quoted in Mann and Ornstein 1995: 224)

Most historians and political scientists who have studied congressional policy making concerning social welfare (which nowadays amounts to more than 60 percent of federal expenditures) have offered a more complicated view.1 But they, too, have often highlighted serious flaws in Congress’s handling of social programs. Martha Derthick (1979: 413), for instance, concludes her book on policy making for Social Security by lamenting that Congress “did little to correct, but instead reinforced, a complacent, poorly informed acceptance of the program—participation was so narrowly confined; expert, proprietary dominance was so complete; debate was so limited; the technicality was so intimidating; the propaganda was so appealing; and the forward steps each seemed so small.” Like many other scholars, she is staggered by congressional actions in 1972 that established huge benefit increases and what she considers a faulty benefit formula. “In the whole history of the program,” she concludes, “it would be hard to find an important decision taken more precipitously and with less careful legislative consideration” (413).

An especially common conclusion of scholars who write about social policy—most of them from a liberal standpoint—is that Congress is a major villain in a long-running conservative assault on the welfare state, thereby [End Page 368] pitching America’s needy headfirst into the world’s most ragged social safety net. According to Linda Gordon (1994: 254), “powerful minorities” in Congress developed “great leverage” during deliberations over the Social Security Act, the consequent “inequities” of which have ever since shaped—and plagued—social welfare in the United States. Other scholars—for example, Jill Quadagno (1994) and Robert Lieberman (1998: 36–37, 217–18)—have maintained that institutional features of Congress, notably the seniority rule, enabled southern barons in committees to design social policies that have intentionally discriminated against African Americans and other minorities (see Gordon 1997; Weir 1995; Fox Piven and Cloward 1993: 132–45). Even scholars who question this view tend to agree that Congress as an institution has weakened liberal social policies, which have often had difficult sledding on Capitol Hill since 1935.


My view of the impact of Congress on...