By David S. Broder (THE WASHINGTON POST, 03/09/06):
Congress returns for a final preelection push this week, with few of its members believing there is much hope of salvaging some real accomplishments from this dismal session.
In an interview last week, one of the Republican leaders of the House told me that in the 21 districts he visited during the August recess, including those in his own Midwestern state, immigration vies with Iraq as a matter of major concern to the voters. Does that mean, I asked, that you’re likely to try to complete a final version of the immigration reform bill, endorsed by President Bush and passed in different forms by the House and Senate?
“No,” said the GOP leader, who spoke without attribution in the interest of candor. “The voters would rather we get it done right than done fast. I don’t look for any action in September.”
“Fast” is not exactly the adjective that comes to mind to describe a legislative package that cleared the House about nine months ago and that came out of the Senate back in May.
In a normal legislative process, the differing bills would be sent to a conference committee of representatives and senators who would work out the differences and send their product on for final votes and a presidential signature. But there is so little agreement between the two Republican-controlled chambers — and so little trust among the members — that they would rather disagree and delay than compromise.
And, politically, they find it safer. As the Republican leader told me, “House Republicans can go home and campaign on the bill the House passed,” even though the problem of illegal immigration is left unsolved.
This is but one example of the failures that led Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute to title their recently published volume “The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.”
The two eminent scholars cite many other instances of institutional damage — from runaway budgets to the lobbying scandals to the near abandonment of effective oversight of executive agencies.
They write as two men who love Congress and admire many who work there. But they say that “over the past two decades, we have become more and more dismayed at the course of Congress. Our unease began with the Democrats in charge of both houses, when a combination of their arrogance after thirty-plus years in the majority and the increasingly shrill frustration of Republicans who chafed under their seemingly permanent minority status was creating strains different and more ominous than any we had seen before.”
When the Republicans took over in 1994, they promised needed reforms, “but it did not take long before those promises went by the boards, and practices that were more unsettling than those of the Democrats became the norms.” Rules were bent, votes held open, committees sidestepped and communications between the parties cut off — all in the interests of “moving” the GOP agenda and the president’s program, once George Bush arrived in the White House.
The result, they write, has been the increasing enfeeblement of the legislative branch, its abandonment of its proper constitutional role as the first branch of government — and the loss of both pride and a sense of institutional responsibility.
How else do you explain Congress’s impotence and inaction, not just on immigration but on energy, health care and the war in Iraq?
What Mann and Ornstein fear is that, if Democrats regain a majority in the House this fall, they may be tempted to use the same kind of bullying tactics on Republicans that Republicans have employed these past 12 years. That would in turn prolong the policy gridlock and further weaken the already shabby reputation of Congress.
But a new election means new faces — and possibly a new spirit on Capitol Hill. Mann and Ornstein have a number of specific changes to suggest in congressional rules and procedures — and in lobbying regulations. But their main point is simple. We need an infusion of men and women committed to Congress as an institution — to engaging with each other seriously enough to search out and find areas of agreement and to join hands with each other to insist on the rights and prerogatives of the nation’s legislature, not make it simply an echo chamber of presidential politics.
That ought to be the criterion by which candidates are judged in this election season.