Two Congressional Experts Explain What Has Gone Very Wrong With Congress

By JOHN W. DEAN
Friday, Aug. 11, 2006

Congress is out of order. In the words of two of the most knowledgeable experts in the nation on the legislative branch, "it is broken." This conclusion is not the judgment of out-of-power partisans: Thomas E. Mann, the Senior Fellow in Government Studies at the Brookings Institute, and Norman J. Ornstein, a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, have been studying - and working with and for - Congress since 1969.

Mann and Ornstein are hands-on political scientists who have been in Washington, and immersed in the workings of Congress, for almost four decades. Regardless of who runs Congress, they will continue their work. But during the last decade, they have grown "dismayed at the course of Congress." Although the deterioration began while the Democrats were still in control, it has, under the Republicans, accelerated and approached crisis dimensions. And a dysfunctional Congress affects our democracy profoundly.

On behalf of the institution to which they have devoted their professional lives, Mann and Ornstein are now speaking out, in The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How To Get It Back On Track (Oxford University Press). I mentioned their book briefly, prior to publication, in an earlier column; now, it has been released, and it is excellent. Its timing is fortunate too, as Congressional elections will be held this November. If only Americans would listen to what the authors have to say.

Their book is not long, yet it is remarkably comprehensive. Mann and Ornstein examine both the House of Representatives and the Senate, but for purposes of this column, I'll focus on the House.

An Overview of the Problems with Today's House of Representatives

"Over a decade of Republican control, the House went from shrill opposition to a Democratic president, culminating in his impeachment, to reflexive loyalty to a Republican president, including an unwillingness to conduct tough oversight of executive programs or assert congressional prerogatives vis-à-vis the presidency - on matters ranging from the accessibility of critical information to war-making," Mann and Ornstein write.

The House's current refusal to check its same-party President is only one of many problems the authors describe. Even more basically, they note, the House has become "an institution that has strayed far from its deliberative roots and a body that does not live up to the aspiration envisioned for it by the framers." This fact has serious consequences because "[b]ad process leads to bad policy - and often can lead to bad behavior, including ethical lapses."

This, in fact, is precisely what has occurred. Consider legislative fiascos, like the way representatives broke House rules to twist arms to vote for Medicare changes that benefit special interests. Or consider the embarrassing and improper intervention by Congress into the end-of-life care controversy regarding brain-damaged Terri Schiavo. Or think of energy legislation that takes better care of energy producers than consumers. The list is long and unpleasant, for these are only few examples.

Civility is gone in the House. Fiscal responsibility has been abandoned. Congress has allowed the nation to be taken to war in Iraq as if it had no will of its own. Serious scandals, relating to influence peddling and conflicts of interest, are rampant at the highest levels of the GOP leadership.

It is not a pretty picture. But few America realize how truly bad it has become, or why.

The Roots of the Problems with the House

Explaining the causes of Congress' current woeful condition, Mann and Ornstein write, "American democracy has been deeply affected by the rise of the most partisan era since the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This is an era characterized by strong and ideologically polarized parties competing from positions of rough parity." At the same time, there is little turnover among Congressional incumbents.

This convergence of events, the authors report, "encourages an intense struggle for control of government and an unabashed manipulation of the electoral and governing institutions to achieve one's political and policy goals." Incumbents do not need to worry much about election victories; they know they are playing a long-term game. And in that game, with two evenly-matched adversaries, small victories do count, even if unpleasantly gotten.

These authors are not finger pointers, but they leave no doubt as to the root causes of the current situation. Two, in particular, top their list:

First, civil rights laws and the economic development of the South "broke up the coalition between the blacks and conservative whites that had allowed Democrats to dominate the region for many decades and eventually led to a safe Republican South," they report. The result was that conservative Southern Democrats moved into the GOP.

Meanwhile, the 1973 ruling by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade provoked the movement that "later would form the core of the Republican Party's largest and most reliable constituency - the religious conservatives."

Stated more bluntly, polarized politics -- which is tearing the fabric of Article I of the Constitution, the section that creates the Congress -- can be attributed to conservative Southern Republican politicians and the religious right. Their politics and agenda have changed Congress - and not for the better.

The Authors' Recommended Solution to End the Over Politicization of the House

Mann and Ornstein have no quick fix for Congress's many problems. Rather, history instructs them that "major change within Congress is most likely to originate outside. Citizens at the polls are the most powerful agents of change," although strong leaders can occasionally help by shaking things up.

They suggest two possibilities currently on the horizon that could have institutional benefits for Congress: Democrats regaining control in the 2006 mid-term election with a significant win, and/or a centrist presidential candidate emerging in 2008 and winning.

Mann and Ornstein comment that "While still in the minority, Democrats in late 2005 remained remarkably unified." (Now, in mid-2006, I believe this is still quite true.) The authors note that "Were [the Democrats] to return to the majority as a result of the 2006 mid-term election, the political logic of divided government might well produce some reduction in partisan rancor and at least occasional cross-party policy agreement." But they also caution that such agreements would still be difficult "because any sizable Democratic Party gains would come at least in part at the expense of the remaining few Republican moderates." The experience of divided government during Clinton's presidency, they note, was not particularly encouraging.

What Mann and Ornstein very politely say is that what the House truly needs is for Republicans to get their teeth knocked out by voters who are disgusted with their agenda. Such a serious electoral defeat, they contend, "might trim the party's ideological sails and diminish the degree of polarization, while giving Democrats the self-confidence and incentive to work for policy change."

Their other hope -- as noted above -- is that either, or both, Democrats and Republicans, nominate a centrist candidate for president in 2008. They believe that what is needed is presidential leadership that truly unites the country. As they say, "A different style of leadership, one more inclusive, less partisan, and less divisive than we have seen in recent years, could make a significant difference."

Amen, I say. A change in tone would make it possible to address the many other problems Mann and Ornstein set forth in their thoughtful study. And without it, not much else is likely to happen. When, if ever, will the great moderate middle of America stand up and push the extremists off the stage?

The Prospects for Repairing the Broken Branch: Will We See Change in This Year's Elections?

For the first time in years, I am encountering more and more voters who are exhausted with the extremists. Traveling the width and breadth of the country this summer, and engaging in wide-ranging dialogues, I have gotten a good feel for the pulse of politically interested people of a wide range of political attitudes. In Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, Dallas, Seattle, and San Francisco -- to name only a few -- I was struck by the frustration of so many with what is happening in Washington.

Republicans, Independents, and Democrats, men and women, young and old, from all sides of the political spectrum want to see an end to polarized politics. They are tired of being manipulated by extremist political leaders forcing wedge issues like gay marriage and abortion to the forefront, while ignoring the serious matters that need to be addressed.

No sooner had I arrived back at my office from my travels than I discovered pollsters are learning the same thing: Increasing majorities of voters want nothing to do with emotional social issues and, in increasing numbers, they are refusing to be drawn into the camps of the extremists on either side.

For example, the Pew Research Center's August 3, 2006 poll finds most American are in the center on issues like abortion - as to which "[m]ajorities of Republicans (62%), Democrats (70%) and political independents (66%) favor a compromise. So do majorities of liberals, moderates and conservatives. More than six-in-ten white evangelicals also support compromise, as do 62% of white, non-Hispanic Catholics." This is encouraging.

Nonetheless, there are numbers of voters who know strikingly little about Congress or their Congressperson. For example, a recent Cato Institute study reveals that only four percent of Americans know the name of their Representative to the House, and only a third of Americans know that Republicans control Congress. As the Cato reports warns: "Ignorance Isn't Bliss."

Still, it is possible the current discontent with Washington that I found so prevalent in my travels will make a difference this time. The defeat of three-term Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman in his primary race against an unknown is certainly some hard evidence of voter discontent with incumbents who support the way Washington has been doing business. Notwithstanding the fact that few Americans know much about Congress and its workings, I sense a shift coming with this Fall's elections.

This is good. Democrats have promised they will reform Congress if they regain control. Mann and Ornstein will be watching the Democrats closely if that happens. They have warned the Democrats that if they "do not follow through on their pledges to run Congress more fairly and openly and to assert Congress's prerogatives - [the authors] will be all over their case. Even if it requires a second edition of The Broken Branch."


John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.