Congress is now a quasi-parliamentary institution

But since the 1980s, power has passed from individual legislators to the parties collectively. Each side has centralized more authority in the party leadership. And far fewer members are willing to buck their party’s consensus to partner with legislators from the other side, no matter how skillfully they craft a compromise.

The result has been to greatly diminish the ability of even the most brilliant legislators—whether Waxman or senators like Ted Kennedy and Bob Dole—to break stalemates by creatively assembling coalitions no one else could envision. “It’s hard for a guy like that to emerge now on either side,” says former Rep. Tom Davis, the Republican who chaired the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee when Waxman was the ranking Democrat. Adds Steve Elmendorf, a former top House Democratic aide, “The leadership is not going to give you the space to do it.”

Instead, in almost all cases, each party’s leadership now decides whether to reach agreement with the opposition—or, more often, to not agree. Rather than negotiating their own compromises, legislators are expected to salute their party’s collective decision. “The best way to put it,” Davis says, “is we’ve turned into a parliamentary system.”