Conventions, Norms, Behaviors in Congress

The Constitution provides little guidance for congressional behavior

members of the House of Representatives and the Senate make their own rules, establish their own norms, choose their own structures. They are free to make it up as they go along. But one should hope that the Constitution’s empowerments and constraints – Congress’s specific constitutional obligations and specific areas in which it is prohibited from acting — will not be the only guides to appropriate congressional behavior.

In writing about the Founders’ concerns about corruption, Fordham’s Zephyr Teachout has argued that one can discern clear underlying principles threaded throughout the Constitution, even if not specifically stated. I would contend that the same concept – discernible unstated principles – applies to much of the constitutional framework regarding Congress, specifically in regard to the Founders’ expectations regarding behavioral norms: deliberation, debate, compromise, and in its interaction with the executive branch, a strong defense of institutional prerogatives. Almost all of these suppositions have proved to have been overly optimistic. There have been few James Madisons in the 21st century versions of the legislative branch.