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The underlying problem with Congress is deciding how to allocate their time

The tragedy of the Congress.

Congress. Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Both chambers of the US Congress have faced ample criticism over the past decade. In the House, Republicans have been the majority party since 2011 but are often paralyzed because a subset of conservatives dubbed the Freedom Caucus has held Speakers John Boehner (2011-’15) and Paul Ryan (2015-’18) hostage to its all-or-nothing legislative strategy.

Meanwhile, the Senate struggles to debate any legislation that is vulnerable to a filibuster, so the current Republican majority has focused on items it can push through without obstruction: nominations, overturning regulations, and using the budget process to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (which failed) and force through $1.5 trillion in tax cuts.

These are completely different dysfunctions, but they share the same core problem. Legislative chambers face a problem known as a tragedy of the commons: Individual demands on a common resource exceed the supply. Each chamber has developed a system to manage its chamber time that is subject to exploitation and needs to develop a new way to operate.

Tragedy of the commons

The classic example of a tragedy of the commons, as related by William Lloyd and popularized by Garrett Hardin, is a plot of land that is open to grazing by local farmers. Each farmer has an individual incentive to grow his or her herd, adding to the grazing demand on the shared land. This incentive can lead to overgrazing because each farmer receives the full benefit of increasing his/her herd but only pays a fraction of the cost of the additional grazing, with the rest of the grazing costs borne by the other farmers.

Ric Stephens, University of Oregon College of Design, School of Planning, Public Policy, and Management

In general terms, a “tragedy of the commons” is a problem humans encounter in a variety of settings. It is characterized by:

  • A limited supply of a nonrenewable (or slowly replenishing) common-pool resource that actors desire
  • An individual incentive to overuse the resource, often because the benefits of use are privatized while the costs are borne by all.
  • Degradation of the resource due to overuse

Solutions to the tragedy

Hardin sketches two basic solutions to the tragedy:

Divide the shared good into privately controlled property

Maintain collective control of the good but allocate access on the basis of some criteria, such as wealth (by auctioning access), merit (by some agreed-upon standard), luck (by lottery), or patience (first come, first served).

Political scientist Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for her research on how communities actually manage common-pool resources. She finds that communities can prevent overuse by developing their own rules, monitoring compliance, and punishing violators.

The tragedy of the Congress

Each chamber of Congress has a valuable common-pool resource: the time of the chamber. For each individual member, the floor of the House or Senate is the place to:

  • Make speeches
  • Bring up and pass bills
  • Offer amendments
  • Get everyone on the record with a roll call vote

The total demand for floor time will vary with the number of members in the chamber and as the rewards for speaking, legislating, and forcing roll call votes increase.

On the other side of the ledger, the time of each chamber is limited. There are 17,520 hours in the two years between the first gavel and sine die for any given Congress (used here as a unit of time).

Legislators decide how many of those hours to actually meet as a chamber, and how much to devote to competing priorities like sleep, family, recreation, fundraising, campaigning, and meeting constituents. The 114th Congress (2015-’16), for example, met for 10.6 percent (Senate) and 8.6 percent (House) of available time.

House and Senate workload, 114th Congress.
Resume of Congressional Activity

As an illustration of how chamber time can be scarce, this table also shows the number of bills introduced and passed in each chamber, with a passage rate of 5.5 percent in the Senate and 11.8 percent in the House. While this is a rough measure of legislative frustration, it is fair to suspect that there were lots of bills that never came up in committee or on the chamber floor that someone would have liked to talk about.

The next two posts will discuss how each chamber copes with its tragedy of the commons, and how the resulting agenda-setting rules explain a lot of Congress’s dysfunction.


This post is part of a series on reforming Congress. Previous posts:

Don’t look to the past to fix Congress
What we want from Congress
Congress should defend democratic norms

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