Recent Passings Remind Us of Congress’ Potential

Posted September 11, 2007 at 2:55pm

Last week was a very painful one for partisans of Congress, with the way too premature loss of three really good people. [IMGCAP(1)]

Ned Gramlich, best known for his service with the Federal Reserve, served for a number of years with the Congressional Budget Office, including a stint as director, and was a terrific educator and dean at my graduate alma mater, the University of Michigan. Ned was a wonderful man, a great and insightful economist, and an ardent believer in integrity in both public and private life as well as the use of information and data in political debate. His premature death received appropriately laudatory obituaries but most largely ignored his service to Congress and his role in preserving and enhancing the sterling reputation of the CBO.

Rep. Paul Gillmor (R-Ohio) was a quietly effective legislator, one of the good guys, who came to Congress to make a positive difference in society, not to garner headlines, advance his own ambitions or lead an ideological crusade. Gillmor rose to leadership in the state Legislature during a time when lawmakers worked across party lines to make things happen, and he brought those sensibilities with him to the House. His sudden death, apparently in a tragic accident, leaves a void in a Congress that sorely needs more like him.

I am particularly sad at the loss of former Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.). During her time in Congress, Dunn was a buddy, someone I could talk to candidly and privately about everything that was going on, including with her own party and its leadership. She was a strong partisan and a savvy political pro — two good and positive qualities — and she knew how to play political hardball. But she also was a class act, an elegant and terrific lady who cared about Congress and about having civil politics in Washington. I was sorry that her colleagues did not see fit to move her up into the kind of visible leadership position that her talents deserved. At the risk of redundancy, we could use many more like her, as well.

Gillmor’s death made me think even more about a fascinating and in many ways troubling paradox in the current Congress. The environment on the House floor is awful — poisonous in many respects. Partisan tensions are high, the rhetoric is often ridiculously out of whack, and the trust level between the parties is close to a modern-day low. But in many committees, there is a reasonably (sometimes astonishingly) high level of cooperation and cordiality reaching across party lines. Of course, there are differences, as there always are and always will be, and there are occasions where the lines are drawn. But committees in the House are operating robustly and efficaciously, in many cases more than they have in years.

This is true on the Appropriations Committee, where Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) have worked harmoniously. It is true on Ways and Means, where the relationship between Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and ranking member Jim McCrery (R-La.) is very different than the relationship Rangel had with his predecessor, ex-Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.). It also is true on Energy and Commerce, Financial Services, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight and Government Reform, with Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Tom Davis (R-Va.), although there may be some strains ahead as Davis gears up his Senate campaign.

In the Senate, the strong working relationships across party lines extend to even more committees. On Finance, Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have developed a warm working relationship over several years (and are now together pitted against the White House on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.) The same warmth, trust and mutual respect exists on Foreign Relations with Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Dick Lugar (R-Ind.). There are strong relationships on Armed Services; Commerce, Science and Transportation; and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. On Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have a warm friendship and a joint determination to operate in as seamless a fashion across party lines as possible — in a committee that sets a new model for Congress, with members of the parties intermixed at the committee table.

The working relationships at the committee level extend beyond chairmen and ranking members in many cases. At least on some committees, rank-and-file minority members are having some input in substantive matters — and a number of House Republicans have told me privately that their role is greater than it was when they were in the majority and policy was dictated from on high, shutting them out nearly as much as the then-minority Democrats.

I do not mean to suggest that all is sweetness and light here. The sharp differences on policy viewpoints persist, and there are still plenty of personality conflicts — and plenty of committees where warfare is more common than civility. But the fact is that in many islands on Capitol Hill, good and thoughtful Members are finding ways to work together and following their individual instincts to look for common ground.

There are many such Members in both parties, including many whose voting records would not put them in the centrist category, but who understand the need to find that common ground — and understand that it is there to be had on many issues, through creative policy, not just by halving differences.

Somehow though, whatever good work emerges from committees gets pushed way down to a lower common denominator when it gets to the floor, where larger political, cultural and societal forces prevail. In the Senate, most bills, even the bipartisan and consensus ones, now get filibuster threats designed to clog the process and prevent or at least delay any policy movement. In the House, the majority leadership is still disinclined to allow enough amendments and debate on most bills. And more and more bills are hit with poison pill or “gotcha” amendments, often in the form of motions to recommit, with minority leaders more interested in scoring points than enacting policy.

I do not see much hope in the short run that the models provided in some committees will take hold in Congress as a whole; losing a Paul Gillmor to early death and a Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) to retirement makes it even less likely. But the fact is there is fertile soil in Congress for a new president, in a new environment, with the efforts of party leaders, to cultivate, perhaps even moving us toward a desire and ability to solve some of our most pressing problems.

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