A Half Century of an Evolving Congress: Observations from the Inside Out

Donald Wolfensburger, former Staff Director of the House Rules Committee, retired from the House in 1997 to continue to monitor the evolving nature of Congress. While on staff, Wolfensburger helped shape the GOP’s rules reforms over the course of three decades. Now, with half a century of observation behind him, he tracks fundamental changes in the proceedings of Congress and their implications for evolving democracy and American trust in the legislative process. Wolfensburger noted the impetus to these changes in his Tower Center event, “A Half Century of an Evolving Congress: Observations from the Inside and Out”, as being a general attitude of criticism towards Congress.

Pursuant to this attitude, solutions such as eliminating the Senate filibuster, changing the makeup of the House Rules Committee, and eliminating seniority for Chairman positions were all proposed while Wolfensburger was working in the House. He notes that an effectual emphasis was placed on increased individual responsibility of members, when a bipartisan amendment was introduced that allowed for forced recorded votes.

This combination of changes, according to Wolfensburger, has led to a deeper partisan divide amounting to an implicit “parliamentary model” in Congress, wherein Committees are weakened to only reflect the desires of party leaders, deliberation is diminished, and leaders’ interests lie within retaining power, raising funds, and shaping the legislative agenda. Due to this dilution, Wolfensburger also emphasizes that there is less inclination within Congress to address large, contentious issues, leading to an increase in members feeling frustrated with the lack of contribution to the legislative process.

Donald R. Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a position he had held since June 1999. Prior to that he worked for 28 years as a staff member in the House of Representatives, beginning in 1969 as a legislative assistant to his own Congressman, Rep. John B. Anderson (R-Ill.). He joined the House Rules Committee staff as Anderson’s subcommittee counsel in 1979, and subsequently served on the committee as subcommittee counsel to Rep. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) from 1981-88, and Rep. Lynn Martin (R-Ill.), from 1989-90. In 1991 he was named Republican Staff Director of the Rules Committee by Ranking Minority Member Gerald B. Solomon (R-N.Y.), and in 1995 Solomon named him chief-of-staff of the Committee in the 104th Congress. He is an expert on parliamentary rules and procedures and played a key role in developing House reform proposals for the Republican leadership over the years, culminating in their adoption as House rules when the GOP won majority control in 1995. More about Mr. Wolfensberger can be found here.