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Ornstein: Congress Has Changed, Not for the Better, and Now It Needs Changing

But when the speaker goes in a matter of weeks from saying that if only the president would publicly support entitlement changes like chained-consumer price index and some means-testing for Medicare, there would be grounds for moving forward on a fiscal plan, to dumping all over the presidentís explicit endorsement of just those steps in his budget, it shows that tribalism is triumphant. If he is for it, we are against it, even if we were for it yesterday.

The biggest change I have seen in the Senate is the new obstructionism via the filibuster and blanket holds.

When Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole joined Gingrich in pushing his Senate Republicans to unite against Clinton on the economic plan and on a health care overhaul, he did not use filibusters to achieve his goal.

But then quasi-filibuster ďholdsĒ as a way of blocking nominations became more and more prevalent, and by the late 1990s were used increasingly to keep judicial slots open, regardless of the quality of the nominees, in hopes that they would remain open for the next president to fill.

Both parties participated avidly in the game of holds, albeit not equally, and both did some things that were over the line. But nothing that we saw in the 1990s or early 2000s came close to what we have seen over the past seven years. The use or threat of filibuster as a routine weapon of obstruction is new, and it has changed the character of the Senate and distorted democracy.

Even as we see some encouraging signs of bipartisan movement in the Senate on key policy areas like fiscal stability, immigration and even guns, we see filibusters and threats of filibusters to block any gun bill and against executive and judicial nominees. I donít like the idea of changing Senate rules midstream, or by simple majority. But something has to give.

Unless that pattern changes, giving a president a chance to get his team in place and to fulfill his responsibility to fill judicial vacancies will require steps to change the rules that would be better resolved through better behavior.

I still love Congress ó it remains the linchpin of American democracy, the best legislative institution in the world. But the trend lines arenít very good ones. I expect Iíll still be writing regularly about Congress for another 20 years or more. I surely donít want to write that itís gotten even worse.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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