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The Issue Dynamics of Congressional Capacity

The Issue Dynamics of Congressional Capacity

(p.177) 11 The Issue Dynamics of Congressional Capacity
Congress Overwhelmed
Jonathan LewallenSean M. TheriaultBryan D. Jones
University of Chicago Press

Congress recently has been unable to solve problems both pressing and recurring on a range of issues. Observers are quick to point to increasing polarization as the culprit. Yet there is nothing about polarization itself that suggests the kinds of breakdowns in problem solving that we have seen, let alone government shutdowns. We draw attention instead to the committee system’s information processing capacity. Committees and their public hearings act as Congress’s capacity to draw attention to and learn about policy problems and proposed solutions. In analyzing data on how committees take in and translate policy information through hearings from 1971 to 2010, this chapter shows that hearings have involved fewer witnesses, have become more one-sided, and are less focused on developing solutions to public policy problems. It also shows that trends in these different indicators are not uniform across policy areas, and that the clusters of issues that have seen the most consistent changes to committee information processing do not fall along familiar partisan divides. The findings highlight the importance of congressional capacity for both policymaking and representation and the need to account for issue-level differences that respond to more targeted changes rather than wide-ranging overhauls of the institution’s operations.

Keywords:   Congress, congressional capacity, congressional committees, hearings, information processing, policy agendas, purpose, stance

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