A Six-Point Plan to Restore Respect for Congress

Posted November 14, 2008 at 1:03pm

Despite the historic aspects of the presidential election, Congress continues its dismal reputation among voters. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll conducted Nov. 1-2 showed an 18 percent/75 percent approve/disapprove job rating for Congress, with other polls just as bad or worse.

CBS/New York Times recorded 15 percent/75 percent rating on Oct. 29, NBC/Wall Street Journal had an even more bottom-dwelling 12 percent/79 percent on Oct. 20, and only the Associated Press (23 percent/74 percent on Oct. 20) and CNN (23 percent/76 percent on Oct. 5) even reflect approval ratings in the 20s.

Regardless of the natural inclination to blame the administration in power for these horrific numbers and to say the Democrats’ gain of about 20 House seats and at least six Senate seats shows Republicans are the root cause, the approval numbers spread the wealth to both sides almost equally.

While it is true that, according to CNN, President Bush now ranks at a historic all-time low of 24 percent approval, the Harris poll completed Sept. 21 shows 21 percent rate the job Democrats in Congress are doing as “excellent” or “pretty good,” whereas 75 percent say “only fair” or “poor.” Republicans actually did a point better: 22 percent versus 74 percent. However, among Congressional “leaders,” Democrats do a bit better than their counterparts. When asked “Do you approve or disapprove the way Democratic leaders in Congress are handling their job?”, respondents in the CNN poll on Oct. 5 had a 34 percent/64 percent approve/disapprove rating for Democratic leaders and a 27 percent/71 percent rating for Republicans.

For those of us who have worked on Capitol Hill for a major part of our lives and for Members of Congress who devote themselves to the institution, these numbers are not only distressing but shocking. We all want Congress to be looked up to as an honored bulwark of democracy, where youth ought to aspire to work as staff or even be elected and where parents should encourage their children to seek a high and honored career.

Leaders on both sides of the House and Senate — including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — all have spent their lives in devotion to the institution of Congress. Clearly, they want it to succeed in the public’s eyes. There are some steps they could take to restore enthusiasm for Congress.

First, downplay the regular biennial battles over who chairs which committees and who wins which open leadership posts. Those fights have occurred before and will again and again — they happen in every Congress and are part of a democratic process. Don’t let the Nov. 10 Wall Street Journal headline be right that “Rift Over Key Committee Post Threatens to Distract Democrats From Agenda.”

Second, in a closed caucus, leadership should tell all Members of both parties in both chambers to end the corruption NOW. Explain to all Members that the message from Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.), and earlier from former Reps. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) and Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), is horrendous to the public’s and our children’s perceptions of the institution. Just quit it — no more illegal gifts, banned trips or illicit sex. You are, and must act like, the role models that we all want to be.

Third, enact realistic bills in the early administration agenda — such as an economic recovery and jobs plan, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, stem-cell research and an Iraq timeline (with maneuverability) paralleling the Iraqi government’s goals. However, agendas also are a regular occurrence and much of them are regularly enacted. The Republican leadership under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) passed the “Contract With America” in 1995, and the Democratic-led House under Pelosi and Hoyer passed virtually every promised bill in early 2007.

Without public perception of success, it does not change the approval numbers for Congress as a whole if the minority unjustifiably blasts and gets coverage for inaccurately alleging a “do-nothing Congress.” That hurts everyone. It’s time for a restoration of the civility and effectiveness of the Tip O’Neill-Bob Michel Congresses of the 1970s and 1980s.

Thus, fourth, and a critical piece, is enhanced public awareness outreach for the good things Congress does in fact do. A far more aggressive television, radio, print and Internet campaign including regular leadership opinion pieces, interviews and appearances emphasizing the positive Congressional agenda would be enormously helpful.

Fifth, cutting the past two year’s record 94 filibusters, cloture blocks and vetoes of bills would help — and the reduction will occur naturally with the higher majority numbers and a Democratic president. The Republicans should improve bills instead of resorting to the campaign rhetoric blasting one-party rule. Likewise, Democrats must respect and encourage Republican involvement in bill drafting.

Finally, the House and Senate should hold joint or separate hearings or, if necessary, create a new Blue Ribbon Commission on Steps to Restore the Reputation of Congress, generate a public report and then do what the recommendations say. The hearings or commission should have, as witnesses or members, leaders of both parties and other experts and regular Americans.

With effort, Congress can return to its intended lofty role as the people’s leaders.

Robert Weiner, president of Robert Weiner Associates, worked for 14 years in the House and for six years in the Clinton White House.