Ornstein: Congress Has Changed, Not for the Better, and Now It Needs Changing
Today’s column will be my last in Roll Call. After more than 20 years of writing Congress Inside Out (my first piece was in 1989), I will be moving on to another venue, starting next month. (Trust me, I’m not going away!) For this column occasion, I thought back to how Congress has changed over the years since I first wrote for this paper.
Both parties have changed; Democrats have grown less heterogeneous as the contingent of Blue Dogs has declined. Yet the most significant changes have come from, and been driven by, Republicans.
Some of the more important changes really took off around 1993. As Tom Mann and I have written in our books “The Broken Branch” and “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” Newt Gingrich was a catalyst. From Bill Clinton’s first day in the White House, House Republicans and their Senate counterparts behaved like a parliamentary minority party, opposing in unison his signature priority in his first year, an economic plan. There were comfortable majorities of Democrats in both chambers, but Clinton could not command anywhere close to the unity he needed to overcome GOP intransigence — for seven-plus long months. (The plan ultimately passed both the House and Senate with no Republican votes.)
The pattern repeated itself with health care in 1994, and it led to Gingrich’s triumph in the 1994 elections; to the first Republican majority in the House in 40 years; to the era since, where close divisions make the majority in each chamber vulnerable to change in virtually every election; and finally to the dominance of the permanent campaign, where gaining traction for campaign purposes trumps working together to solve problems.
The permanent campaign also means that demonization of adversaries for political purposes has poisoned comity and added to the tribal atmosphere in the House.
The House in 1993-94 had a significant contingent of moderate and even liberal Republicans, all of whom joined in the party strategy to oppose en bloc — one reason being that Democratic insensitivity and arrogance, bred by decades of hegemony, radicalized many of them.
But on many other lower-profile issues, Republicans were able and willing to work with Democrats to find bipartisan solutions to problems. That is lost in the mists of history.
There are no more moderate or liberal Republicans — the Sherwood Boehlerts, John Porters, Amo Houghtons and Michael N. Castles are long gone. What now passes for a moderate would have been considered a bedrock conservative in the early 1990s.
The House GOP has veered sharply, even drastically, to the right from what already was a pretty rightist center of gravity.
But more important has been the attitudinal change. Respect for the institution of Congress — much less for the framers’ vision of policymaking through deliberation, debate and an effort to find common ground, or at least grounds for compromise — has been replaced by obduracy, contempt for compromise and a level of demonization of the other side, starting with the president. This is deeply unsettling.
I have sympathy for the task of Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, who knows that his options for enacting laws, meaning reconciling differences with bills that pass the Senate, are limited to finding more Democrats than Republicans to pass measures on the floor.
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 president’s 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 “holds” 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 don’t 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 — it remains the linchpin of American democracy, the best legislative institution in the world. But the trend lines aren’t very good ones. I expect I’ll still be writing regularly about Congress for another 20 years or more. I surely don’t want to write that it’s gotten even worse.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.