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Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, two of Washington’s most respected political observers, have published two books on Congress in the past six years, the most recent being “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.”
Their latest work is more than an update of their 2006 book, “The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.” This time they abandon any pretense of scholarly neutrality — something they say is overdone, as is journalistic objectivity. Instead they finger the rogue elephant in the room — conservative Republicans — as being primarily responsible for Congress’ dysfunction.
Their charge deserves serious consideration. The authors warn that if the trend toward more extreme party polarization continues, our constitutional system of separated powers and checks and balances could become permanently gridlocked by parliamentary-style parties that are incapable of compromise and lack the accountability inherent in a parliamentary democracy.
First, is Congress today dysfunctional? I think most experts would agree it is when it comes to performing its most basic functions, such as funding the government in a timely manner and reauthorizing programs previously considered routine and nonpartisan. If one goes further to define dysfunctionality as a failure to enact a president’s programs, however, that’s a misuse of the term and the Constitution.
Is this dysfunctionality peculiar to the current Republican Party in Congress? No, when Democrats were in the majority (as they still are in the Senate), they had comparable difficulties budgeting, including the enactment of deficit reductions and debt limit increases. Setting policy priorities and funding them are not a partisan problem. They are a function of a larger, systemic culture shaped by numerous external and internal forces, not the least of which are growing interest group demands on both parties in times of economic and fiscal stress. In what the authors call the “permanent campaign,” both parties, abetted by their interest group allies, are equally guilty of using electioneering tactics in lawmaking — a zero-sum approach in what was historically designed to be a bargaining environment.
Are Congress’ hyper-partisanship and legislative failures unique to this point in our nation’s history? No, Congress has periodically gone through periods in which the degree of partisanship has run high and criticisms of the institution by the public and press have been legion. In the late 1800s, for instance, the two major parties were highly polarized and control of Congress flipped frequently between them as the public registered its dissatisfaction with the majority party’s misreading of its mandate or its inability to act.
Mann and Ornstein’s analysis of Congress today shows that both parties are moving toward their respective poles, as are American voters. Nevertheless, they seem to gloss over the fact that the Democratic Party is losing its moderates almost as fast as Republicans are gaining more conservative Members. The moderate House Blue Dog Coalition, for instance, lost half of its Members in the last election, and a preliminary estimate by the Bipartisan Policy Center reveals there might be only one left after the next election.
What tips the balance for the authors is that Republicans seem to be moving faster and further to the right than the Democrats are to the left — something they see as a dangerous “asymmetry.” Moreover, the GOP is less inclined to embrace government solutions to national problems.
The biggest disappointment in their latest book is the authors’ almost complete abandonment of a central theme in “Broken Branch,” the need for Congress to return to “the regular order” — an adherence to the rules and procedures that guarantee deliberation, fairness and transparency in committees and on the floor.
In a 2008 epilogue to “Broken Branch,” published shortly after Democrats retook control of Congress, Mann and Ornstein, a Roll Call columnist, concede that Democrats “failed in most respects to return to regular order and to dampen partisanship in the legislative process.” However, they go on to excuse the party’s breach of promise on grounds that “implacable opposition to their agenda by the president and Republican leadership … made it virtually impossible to return to the regular order in committee, on the floor, and in conference, and still advance their legislative agenda.”
Perhaps it is this situational procedurism — of the ends justifying the means under certain circumstances — that allows the authors to again conclude, as they did in “Broken Branch,” that the election of a Democratic president and Congress might be the best cure for the institution’s dysfunction. It wouldn’t matter if this exacerbated partisanship or suppressed deliberation because the minority would be less able to delay or defeat the majority’s programs.
The authors conclude their book by warming to the reality of a quasi-
parliamentary system — something they say can work if more decision-making powers are shifted from Congress to the executive branch and their preferred political party is running the show.
Don Wolfensberger is a Congressional scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a resident scholar with the Bipartisan Policy Center, and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.