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Q. Congress has been at gridlock for years, with many close calls, from the fiscal cliff to the government shutdown. Do you think Congress depends on dramatic threats such as those to get things done?
A. At the moment. But it is no way to make bipartisan, long-term strategic decisions, because moving from one “cliff” to another erodes public trust and undermines our economy. Republicans have been unable to persuade congressional Democrats or the broader public that additional tax cuts, severe reductions in public services and diminished entitlement benefits will strengthen the American economy, so they have sought to use whatever leverage they can to achieve their goals. The tactic has not served the country or the Republican Party well.
Q. Both sides of the aisle lament the death of bipartisanship, yet Congress has changed in many ways for the better: There is more diversity, more transparency and better ways to communicate with constituents. Do you see other ways in which Congress has changed for the better?
A. Not really. Two related trends overwhelm these positive changes. The ideological polarization and legislative gridlock frustrates members of Congress on both sides of the aisle as well as the public. Second, the Citizens United and SpeechNow court decisions have empowered outside groups to become stronger enforcers of group and ideological conformity. Congress as an institution is less respected here at home and around the world.
Q. So is it all downhill from here?
A. No. I believe that no trend of this kind continues forever; this era of hyperpartisanship will moderate over the next decade because the Republican Party will gradually adjust its positions that are in fundamental conflict with the demographic trends in this country. Both parties want to be competitive in presidential elections.
Q. Turn on C-SPAN and you see partisanship and rancor in many House floor speeches and committee hearings. Do you believe this to be a relatively new aspect to congressional debate, or has this always been present but taken a different form, particularly when Congress was not so readily broadcast across the country?
A. Incivility is a symptom, not the disease. We’ve always had partisan conflict in Congress, and we always will. Yet when I worked for a year (1970-71) on the staff of Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine, this was a different place, more collegial, more sensitive to data, more concerned about all of the American people. I think because the for-profit media prizes conflict above cooperation and sound bites above analysis, politicians have learned to adapt to those tendencies. Consequently, our public debates are dumbed down as our problems grow more complex.
Q. How has serving in Congress better prepared you for the world outside of Washington? Do you feel members of Congress understand the challenges in the workplace, or are they given an unrealistic idea of what day-to-day life is like for many people?
A. At the most basic level, leaving Congress means leaving staff that have provided constant support and structure to virtually every minute of the day. Some people may find that adjustment to private life difficult, although others, like me, welcome the additional freedom to spend more time (weekends!) with family and friends.