C. Wright Mills Explains the Decline of the American Congress

The Capitol Building, c. 1910. 
Image Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, 
“Detroit Publishing Co. Collection” no. 039985. [Link]

 The corruption of the United States Congress by monied interests and its eclipse by the other branches of  the federal government is a topic we regularly return to. [1] It is not difficult to show that this has happened; more interesting is why it happened, and when. One of the best descriptions is provided by the noted sociologist C. Wright Mills.

C. Wright Mills wrote his most famous work, The Power Elite, in 1953. Perhaps the greatest virtue of this attack on the 1950s “establishment” was the author’s insistence that he present the data behind every claim he made. No Jeremiad against the 21st century ‘power elite’ has matched Mr. Mills on this point. 

One of the more interesting claims made inside The Power Elite is that by the time of Mill’s writing (1953) the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate had been marginalized from the real seat of power. They were not part of the ‘power elite’, but composed a less important “middle power.” Rule by those popularly elected had been replaced with rule by those appointed.  Of the two chapters Mr. Mills writes on this point, two passages stick out as particularly useful descriptions of this transition:

In the middle of the nineteenth century–between 1865 and 1881–only 19% of the men at the top of the government began their political career on the national level; but from 1901 to 1953, about one-third of the political elite began there, and, in the Eisenhower administration, some 42% started in politics at the national level–a high for the entire political history of the United States. 

From 1789 right up to 1921, generation after generation, the proportion of the political elite which has ever held local or state offices decreases from 93 to 69%. In the Eisenhower administration, it fell to 57%. Moreover, only 14% of this current group [1953]–and only about one quarter of earlier twentieth century politicians– have ever served in any state legislature. In the Founding Father’s generation of 1989-1801, 81% of the higher politicians had done so. 

There has also been a definite decline in the proportions of higher politicians who have ever sat in the United States House of Representatives or in the Senate. In 1801-25, 63% of the political elite had been politicians in the House, 39%, in the Senate; from 1865-1901 the proportions were 32 and 29%; but during the 1933-1953 era, only 23% had ever been members of the House of Representatives, 18% of the Senate. 

….Once, most of the men who reached  the political top got there because people elected them up the hierarchy of offices. Until 1901, well over half, and usually more than two thirds, of the political elite had been elected to all or most of their positions before reaching their highest national office. But of late, in a more administrative age, men became big politically because small groups of men, themselves elected, appointed them: only 25% of the higher politicians in 1933-53 rose largely by means of elective offices; 9% has as many appointed as elected offices, and 62% were appointed to all or most of their political jobs before reaching top position.

Just as interesting as the changing demographic profile of Congress was the changing nature of their work:

In the first and second decade of [the 20th century], only a few bills were presented during the six months of the first session or the three months of the second. These bills were considered during the ample time between committee study and their debate on the floor. Debate was of importance and was carried o before a sizable audience in the chamber. Legislation took up most of the members time and attention. Today hundreds of bills are considered at each session, and since it would be impossible for members even to real them all– or a tenth of them–they have come to rely on the committees who report the bills. There i little debate and what there is often occurs before an emptied chamber. The speeches that are made are mainly for the members locality and many are not delivered, but merely inserted into the record. While legislation goes through the assembly line, the Congressmen are busy in their offices, administering a small staff which runs errands for constituents and mails printed an typed matter to them.[2]

Increasing costs of campaign finance, the explosion of executive agency regulations, and the gargantuan size of modern legislation, all three common explanations for the legislature’s decline, are given little space in Mill’s account. This is because most of these trends only took off after The Power Elite was written. Yet as Mr. Mills’ book suggests, the eclipse of Congress began well before any of these things. They did not create a new problem, but compounded what was already a serious one. 


[1] See, for example: 

T. Greer. “Separation of Powers is Dead.” The Scholar’s Stage. 14 March 2013. 

—- “What Senator Paul Accomplished.” The Scholar’s Stage. 7 March 2013.

—- “A Few Thoughts on the Senate.” The Scholar’s Stage. 29 May 2010.

—- “Made by Washington: Ignorance and Hackery.” The Scholar’s Stage. 20 March 2010.

[2] C. Wright Mills. The Power Elite. (New York: Oxford University Press). 1956. p. 229-231, 252-253

Leave a Comment

No Comments Yet