The legendary Joseph (Uncle Joe) Cannon, speaker of the House of Representatives from 1903 to 1911, so despised reform of any kind that it was said of him: "When God created the world, if a decision had to be made as to whether civilization should be brought out of chaos, Cannon would have voted for chaos."
So recounts Robert Remini in The House, his definitive history of the House of Representatives that reminds us of a core truth about the American political system: It is deeply conservative. Reform is rarely possible and usually limited.
Congress's chronic inability to act frustrates many observers of U.S. politics, and causes outsiders to shake their heads in smug disbelief. But the dysfunction of Congress is one of America's greatest strengths.
The House and Senate are currently trying to pass a budget - really a series of appropriations bills - to finance the fiscal year that is already two months old.
The Democrats, who control both houses, want to increase spending on health care for children, while forcing President George Bush to accelerate the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. But the Republican minority has the ability to block legislation, especially in the Senate. As well, committee chairmen in both houses enjoy great power to promote their own agendas. And the final budget bills, when passed by the House and amended by the Senate, must be reconciled so that each house passes an identical piece of legislation.
Earlier this year, after months of wrangling, the Democrats got a series of appropriations bills through Congress. And then Mr. Bush vetoed almost everything they'd achieved. He was unhappy with tax increases that had snuck into the budget to fund expanded health care for children, and strings that had been attached to funding for defence. If it weren't for a series of continuing resolutions that keep things going from day to day, the government would have to shut down.
Congress is working on an omnibus bill that satisfies the strongest Republican concerns, and Mr. Bush is making encouraging noises about signing it, so a budget should be in place by Christmas. But the disappointed Democrats have discovered that narrow majorities in both houses are not enough to deter a determined opposition and president.
Energy conservation, health-care reform, agricultural subsidies, trade deficit, illegal immigration - the list of pressing issues in need of action sits there, festering, year after year. And yet action is incremental, inadequate, if there is any action at all - proof, say the skeptics, that the republic is sclerotic and in decline.
Yet, a careful reading of American history reveals that it has always struggled to overcome chronic crises, and has always succeeded in the end, though it took a civil war in one instance. The framers of the Constitution realized their republic was bound to be riven with sectional and class conflicts. So they created a system of government that made substantial action impossible unless there was both a vertical and horizontal consensus. This frustrates reformers, who always insist that disaster is imminent without immediate action. And yet, somehow, America muddles through.
Take global warming. Many Americans, and the rest of the world, demand that the world's largest economy reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions. But Congress is far from ready to sacrifice the economy for the sake of cooler air. There is, however, an emerging consensus that the country is too reliant on imported oil. So, yesterday, Congress passed - and the President will sign - a law raising fleet fuel averages from 25 to 35 miles a gallon (9.4 to 6.7 litres per 100 kilometres) by 2020. Not much. But a start.
Democracy is dangerous. A passionate majority can smash a nation's institutions to bits. New nations are forever changing their constitutions, usually to suit the cravings of the latest authoritarian populist in power. Mature democracies have developed constitutional and cultural brakes against impetuous government. In Canada, the provinces are the watchdog. The British rely on their deeply embedded sense of caution.
Each country finds its own way to check precipitate action. America's way is through the division of powers. It drives everyone mad, and it works fine.