In his book "The Best Seat in the House", excerpted online here, former Congressman John Dingell expresses his feeling that there should be more bills passed by legislature.

Yet [Congressperson Debbie Dingell's] efforts are often stymied simply because it is understood that even should a good bill make it through the hyper-partisan House, it will die a quiet death in the Senate because of the disproportionate influence of small states.

With my own eyes, I’ve watched in horror and increasing anger as that imbalance in power has become the primary cause of our national legislative paralysis.

Dingell then mentions his vote in 1969 to abolish the Electoral College via the Bayh-Celler amendment.

Is our government paralyzed? What would it look like for the US government to heal from such a paralysis?

  • 47
    This is a feature, not a bug. The whole difficulty to pass bills is designed to ensure only necessary AND widely supported bills get passed, to avoid over-legislation by power crazy maniacs (that most people who get power tend to turn into, to one degree or another)
    – user4012
    Dec 4, 2018 at 16:31
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    @user4012: Yes, Dingell's opinion of what constitutes a "good" bill is likely considerably biased. It's not hard to find things that might be "good" in the eyes of residents of the highly-urbanized areas of a few states, yet very bad for people in rural areas. For instance, this map of support for gun control legislation shows support only in a handfull of urban areas: isidewith.com/map/2Y5/support-for-gun-control#z5
    – jamesqf
    Dec 4, 2018 at 19:23
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    That's an extremely terrible example. Gun control has over 90% approval (if you ask if people support universal background checks). Gun control also has very low approval (if you ask people if they support bans on certain types of guns).
    – xyious
    Dec 4, 2018 at 20:26
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    So it's a great example, then. You don't even have to know what "more restrictions" are intended, in order to see the problem.
    – Beanluc
    Dec 4, 2018 at 20:51
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    The quantity of legislation is not the same as the quantity of laws on the books. Lots of legislation amends existing laws; perhaps the point in the quote is that without the ability to pass legislation you can't do the continual refinement which is necessary in a changing world. This could include removing, altering, or adding to the total set of laws. Dec 5, 2018 at 16:25

5 Answers 5


This is a matter of opinion that entirely depends on your worldview of what the role, size, and scope of government should be.

The American political left favors things like universal health care, free public education, strong business regulation, reduced income inequality, and social welfare programs. Therefore, people on the left generally see a larger, more centralized government as a necessary instrument to bring about social change and implement the tax policies necessary to support them. For them, the slow, lumbering pace of the legislative process is an obstacle to getting things done.

The American political right favors things like lower taxes, less regulation, free markets, individual liberty, and private enterprise. Therefore, people on the right generally see a larger, more centralized government as a threat to individual freedom and personal responsibility. For them, the slow, lumbering pace of the legislative process is necessary to restrain the government from becoming too powerful, and thus tyrannical.

The framers of the Constitution deliberately designed the system with a fairly complex system of checks and balances so that laws enacted by the government would need a broader base of consensus than what was possible in Europe at the time.

It should be noted that in the passage you quoted from your source, the author (John Dingell) is writing about his wife, who is also a House representative. Both are decidedly left-wing in their politics. Among other things, they have advocated for the abolition of the U.S. Senate as an institution, which is a fringe position in American politics. He's just bemoaning how difficult it is to push policy agendas like that through.

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    I think you're conflating two related but different things: Size of government, and amount of legislation. Some bills may just alter the government, without growing or shrinking it. That said, I don't disagree with your answer (maybe some of the opinions contained in it, but that's a different story), and I really like how you've stepped back and written the logic of both sides, without implying that one group is full of racist nutbars or overly sensitive pansies. +1.
    – anon
    Dec 5, 2018 at 0:01
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    @NicHartley But Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy implies that on the whole legislation will always expand the scope of the power of the people making it. Dec 5, 2018 at 3:34
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    This is the brilliance of the American political system. A slow lumbering legislative body is best for the left and right. The best illustration is the legalization of Marijuana. Because the balance of power isn't just left and right. It is also what each community wants vs the lowest common denominator Dec 5, 2018 at 12:49
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    Whether the author is left-leaning or not may be a misguided view on the quote. The House is highly partisan in the sense that representatives ever increasingly vote more along party lines for the last 40 years. The Senate is under disproportionate influence of small states, and highly undemocratic as a result. But, yeah, it comes down to your first sentence. Dec 5, 2018 at 13:46
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    @RobertTausig You realize that being "undemocratic" was explicitly the purpose of the Senate, right? Senators weren't even elected by citizen vote originally; they were chosen by state legislatures. Democracy was never the focus of America's founding; limited government was. And to help achieve that, they intentionally set various political powers in opposition of each other to make it difficult for any group to dominate the others. I can think of several safeguards that were intended to limit the power of having a lot more people in a small area.
    – jpmc26
    Dec 6, 2018 at 1:29

Your question is fundamentally flawed. By use of the word "suffering" it implies that a paralyzed legislative body is a bad thing. This is a point of hot contention going back to the Federalist Papers. If inquiring about if the US is experiencing legislative paralysis it changes the meaning of the question, but I will answer that.

Yes, and it is intentionally designed to be that way.

The US constitution is designed to slow legislation down. However, this isn't about why, what for, or if you like it, agree with it, or want it. It is intentionally slower and more difficult for the Federal government to make changes than for individual states or local municipalities. You can almost view it as the higher the rank the law is, the harder it is to pass it.

It is impossible to answer What would it look like for the US government to heal from such a paralysis? without first accepting the premise of paralysis being bad. Hypothetically, if the US were to emerge from a state of legislative paralysis where a Congress was able to pass as much as they wanted, and did, then I believe you would see a civil war before anything people would call "healing".


In the first year of the Trump administration, over 100 federal laws were passed. In the 115th Congress (the current legislative year), more bills have been passed than since 2007 and we are on track for another 120-140 laws. Here is a summary so far.

So, to answer your question: no, new federal laws and regulations are being created by the hundreds. However, if your goal is to have your life even more controlled by government and more heavily taxed, you may want to consider moving to Europe, the only place that generates more legislation than the United States.

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    It's not just an issue of the number of laws but also of their impact.
    – boot4life
    Dec 4, 2018 at 20:40
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    And a hundred laws a year is nothing to the Bills submitted for consideration that die in some stage. At time of writing (COB of Congress work day) a total of 18 bills were introduced into either House. The previous Congressional term (114) introduced over 10,000 bills in a two year period, of which 329 reached President Obama's desk to sign (I'm sure one was vetoed but it passed by Congressional Veto) or about 3% of all bills introduced over the course of 2 years.
    – hszmv
    Dec 4, 2018 at 22:08
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    Do you have a source and/or numbers for your last sentence? I believe that there are at least 200 local laws (separately enacted regulations) of tobacco sales conditions in Massachusetts alone, while the comparably sized Czech Republic has one such. Dec 5, 2018 at 13:18
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    Using Congress's search tool, it seems to me that with less than a month to go, your characterization in the first paragraph is simply not true. Where is your source for "on track for another 120-140 laws" given that less than 300 have passed in the preceding 23 months?
    – Geobits
    Dec 5, 2018 at 13:51

It is, but not for that reason.

The numbers are not actually hard to come by; in the late 70s for example, Congresses enacted 700-800 laws; by the 90s that number was 400-600; the 10s so far have seen numbers in the 250-350 range so far and that includes the current Congress which has been characterized by a single party controlling both chambers of Congress and the presidency. See https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/statistics . So the passing of legislation has become surprisingly harder.

One could also validate the suspicion that the Senate is slower than the House at approving legislation, but I think that would be a really dicey effect to characterize. For example, if one is doing it by the number of bills passed, one will naturally run into the problem that the House has many more legislators than the Senate. One might compare probabilities of "it passed the Senate given that it was introduced in the House," vs "it passed the House given that it was introduced in the Senate" for example. So for example I can tell you that of the 281 enacted laws of this current Congress, Senate bills make up 87 of them while House bills make up 194 of them. This sounds like a big difference until I tell you that the House has introduced in various forms 8,663 bills compared to the 4,541 bills of the Senate and so the probability of a Senate bill making it into law given that it was introduced is 1.9% whereas the probability of a House bill making it into law given that it was introduced is 2.2%, and it hardly seems like that's a significant difference to quibble over. There might be a more meaningful difference if we limit it to bills that really have been seen by both houses, in which case there were 237 House bills there to 250 Senate bills, but those numbers coming close to each other is bad for the hypothesis, since it means the opposite -- that Senate bills tend to more often get to the House than House bills get to the Senate, but that once they do, the Senate bills tend to die in the House more than the House bills tend to die in the Senate. But I would need to characterize the numbers for much more than just the present Congress to see (a) is this even really the right number to be looking at? and (b) have these probabilities really changed over history or am I just detecting "how the system works" and not "what's different today than in the past".

So I'm not sure that one can really come to a strong belief that the Senate is moving too slowly and it's making the House ineffective.

Maybe it's the House what has to change

The bicameral legislature we have comes back to an ancient debate in the US: should the constituent political body be the people of the United States, or the states of the United States? The solution was just to be extra-conservative: "something should not become a law unless both approaches agree that it should be one." So we get two representatives from each state in the Senate and we get roughly proportional representation of each state in the House and the House tends to better represent the urban city concerns whereas the Senate protects rural and states' rights better. If you still believe that this is a valid concern -- that the US government should be somewhat weaker and that state governments should be stronger, so that our politics is a bit more heterogeneous -- then it doesn't make much sense to change the Senate: it has to exist and it has to have first-past-the-post elections because there is only ever one seat "up for grabs."

The House's purpose, however, is not served all that well by the House's structure. The House is meant to ensure that every person feels their will is heard in Washington, but the House faces several biases that have to do with the way territory is carved up into districts. First, there is still a systematic bias towards state representation because states which would be too small to qualify for a representative still get one; second there are many US citizens who cannot have representation in the House because they for one reason or another do not occupy a state for its purposes (Puerto Rico, Washington DC); third there is a well-known process by which the local governments of the various states choose "districts" to run first-past-the-post elections in, and they choose those districts so as to maximize the chance that some candidates retain their seats, a process called "gerrymandering" after a political cartoon depicted one of these districts, made by Massachusetts governor Eldridge Gerry, as a dragon or salamander in its contortedness.

The thing is, precisely because the Senate exists to protect the states, there's no reason that this districting needs to be done in the first place. There's no reason that it can't just be a proportional system.

See I think the early US assumption was "we are a bunch of very independently minded strong personalities and we expect that US politics is always going to be that way, so we do not need to consider the influence of political parties." This assumption was wrong in practice: political parties have absolutely dominated the political discussion in the US for basically its entire history. So I think that the central struggle revolves around giving parties a central place in the political system rather than tacking them on at the end, where they get an unreasonable amount of political power but are also unreasonably vulnerable to infighting.

What a different system could look like

Other countries have a parliament system that works like this: the parties of those countries are real established political entities in their political process; they need to specify "here are the people that we will put in office if you vote for us." The people of the country vote for the parties that they want; if the House is fixed to 400 members, say, and a party gets 30% of the vote, it can expect that the top 120 names off of its list will be representatives. And you just don't need to worry about apportioning this among all of the different states in any way, because the people were represented (they got to sway the party composition of the House) and the states were also represented (they got to sway the composition of the Senate).

The reason that this would be desirable is that perhaps the actual reason that legislation is dropping, has to do with the two-party schism in both the House and the Senate. In my limited experience, US citizens are neither Republicans nor Democrats; everyone has a party who they vote for but nobody likes their party, they are just terrified of the other party and they can't take the risk that the other party gets into power. This leads to a widely recognized effect where voters are encouraged, over and over, to not vote for a third party in any sort of political race because those votes would be "wasted."

So the first two years of Trump's presidency have been rather low-legislation even though they featured party domination, and my best guess for why that is has to do with the internal conflict of a Tea Party movement against the more polished traditional-GOP movement. And my solution is basically just, the Tea Party should be an actual party, same as the Green Party and the Libertarian Party are. It can't be, right now, because it enjoys enough Republican support that it would cause the Republican party to lose elections if it weren't a minority sub-party in the Republican party. But if you just have the people vote on parties, then the Tea Party becomes its own political entity and it has some separate agenda from the Republican Party and it represents its own concerns in the House -- and on the subjects where they agree they still work together in the House; and on the subjects where they don't agree they have to form different coalitions with other small-government parties like the libertarians, say.

The lasting effect on the Senate is harder to calculate, but Senate candidates would probably no longer belong to just one political party. You might find out "Oh, the junior senator from South Carolina is affiliated with the Libertarian and Republican and Green parties: now that's weird, a small-government traditionalist environmentalist."

What it does make much less clear is the presidency since the electoral college still depends on that apportionment of representatives. But there are options there. The most radical is what other folks do with their parliaments -- the parliament simply elects the executive branch directly. But if you wanted to preserve that classical separation of powers, there's no reason that you couldn't leave the current apportionment steps in-place and just have it not used for the House at all.


There is a big problem with the theory that is presented in that quote that appears to be ignored.


Extremely partisan; extremely biased in favor of a political party.
Sharply polarized by political parties in fierce disagreement with each other.

The fact is that former Congressman John Dingell is claiming the house is hyper-partisan which means that it is passing bills that are supported by one side of the political spectrum but not the other. What the senate does in this case is to prevent bills that are strongly supported by one party but strongly opposed by the other party from being pushed through. The purpose of the senate was not intended to represent the people but instead represent the states and ensure that every state was represented equally. Also it should be noted that senators used to be appointed by the state legislatures but due to problems with that process (which could lead to vacancies for years) the 17th amendment changed it to a direct vote.

Now if you go back to the 2016 presidential election it can be noted that the Democratic candidate received around 2% more (or about 3 million more votes) of the vote total in the country but they ended up not having control of the white house or either branch of government. As it stands after the 2016 election the party that received the minority of the votes would be able to push through their agenda if it was not for the checks built in by the senate.

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