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Gridlock Greets Mondale on Return to D.C.

Mondale visited the Capitol in January. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Tuesday’s symposium on the legacy of Walter Mondale, the former vice president and power-player senator, offers a fresh rationale for considering a smartly argued report that’s gone largely overlooked in all this fall’s congressional news.  

The white paper, released last month by the nonprofit and nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, concludes that congressional polarization has spread gridlock so widely and deeply beyond the Capitol that it’s gummed up the works significantly for the executive branch as well. Few people could testify to all this with more authority than Mondale, who in the 1970s elevated the vice presidency from decades of sinecure status, and before that spent a dozen years working in a highly functional Senate as a peripatetic policy maven with a strong hand in executive branch oversight without regard to party.  

As crisply articulated in the report, the 87-year-old Mondale would not likely recognize the working of the capital city he officially left in 1981, to which he’s returned for a full day of panel discussions about his work sponsored by the University of Minnesota and a testimonial dinner scheduled to feature the seriously ill Jimmy Carter.  

The study is “Government Disservice: Overcoming Washington Dysfunction to Improve Congressional Stewardship of the Executive Branch,” and it details half-a-dozen ways in which years of pitched partisan battles and legislative standoffs on the Hill have taken an enervating toll on departments and agencies.  

Some are relatively straightforward and patently connected to the news of the day. The most obvious damage has been wrought by the breakdown of the annual budget and appropriations process and the attendant uncertainties — not only about shutdowns and defaults, but also about whether new priorities and programs will ever get off the ground.  

“Lost productivity and the inability to plan, innovate and hire for critical positions” are only a few of the newly chronic problems for the agencies because of the fiscal gridlock.  

Those have been compounded by the increasing balkiness of the confirmation process. So many Cabinet, sub-Cabinet and regulatory agency nominees remain in limbo for so long — often because of “political fights over policy issues unrelated” to their qualifications, the report says — that it has “imperiled departmental business by stalling decision-making and placing agencies in a holding pattern.”  

And what little legislation Congress manages to clear, the study found, too often makes the executive branch’s life unnecessarily difficult by being imprecisely written and filled with gratuitous (and underfunded) requirements for reports and studies.  

Since reauthorizations are so rare, fixing these “negative unintended consequences” is almost impossible, so agencies are perpetually left to “devote precious time and resources to meet congressional mandates, but often get little help from Congress to address important policy or management challenges.”  

Like the impasse over what to do after the current continuing resolution lapses, the imminent debt limit showdown and this fall’s bulked-up roster of nominees listed on the Senate calendar with no action in sight, Thursday’s scheduled hearing before the House Select Committee on Benghazi is an immediate reminder about another conclusion:  

Most senior federal officials “respect the importance of congressional oversight regarding policy, how programs are being administered and how efficiently money is being spent.” But the report cited evidence that such serious work has declined in recent years, yielding “a pervasive sense” that “lawmakers are more interested in grabbing headlines and scoring political points than in improving agency operations.”  

(This is especially true in the House, according to one of the study’s most dramatic findings: The number of executive branch oversight hearings during the first two years of the Obama administration was only about 20 percent the total from the first two years of the Reagan administration.)  

Beyond tangible data, the report relied on interviews with former political appointees and career officials at the major departments and agencies, during this and preceding two administrations, plus previous members of Congress and former top Hill aides.  

A theme from those discussions is that the people running the two branches no longer have much mutual understanding about what’s driving the other: Executive officials put a premium on improving the delivery of public service and perceive lawmakers as disinterested in how legislative dysfunction is hobbling those efforts.  

People on the Hill are so focused on arguing about the size of government and view the bureaucrats as way too focused on the minutia of governance. And the mutual misunderstanding is perpetuated by a culture of official life where personal relationships have almost entirely disappeared.  

Such a conclusion, it’s safe to say, would sound anathema to Mondale, who worked to remain a personable and effective bridge between the West Wing and Capitol Hill during a time when relations between Carter and Congress steadily soured.  

It’s also the case that Mondale — who served before that on the Senate Finance, Budget, Banking, Labor and Space committees — had one of the longer roster of legislative accomplishments among modern senators who served the equivalent of just two terms.  

He also was a central player on two of the most important congressional oversight efforts of his day, investigating NASA safety standards after three astronauts died in a launch pad fire and then abuses of power by the CIA a decade later.  

He was ousted from national office in 1980, suffered a landslide defeat as the Democratic presidential nominee four years later and then, after three years in the 1990s as ambassador to Japan, was defeated in a late-starting 2002 comeback bid for the Senate after the Democratic nominee, Sen. Paul Wellstone, died in a plane crash. That record makes clear that, well into retirement age, he still had a strong faith in the work of government.  

If he even glances at the Partnership for Public Service report during Tuesday’s conference downtown, he might be forgiven for changing his mind.

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