October/November 2013: Why is Congress Failing Us?

Washington Watch | October/November 2013
By Bruce Moyer

The recent showdowns in Washington over Obamacare, government funding, and the debt ceiling are like a bad movie. We’ve seen it before, and it’s actually even worse when we take a second, closer look. It’s no surprise that Congress’ public approval ratings have fallen to historically low levels. Why shouldn’t Americans be dissatisfied with Congress?

Yet, there was a time not all that long ago when political gamesmanship in Washington existed, but not as an end to itself. Back then, when legislative battles came to a climax, Congress and the President, Republicans and Democrats alike, would put aside their partisan differences and compromise for the good of the country. The Reagan era of the 1980s, despite its historic appeal to Republican conservatives, was witness to considerable bipartisanship. The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction law of 1985, which ushered the way to the prosperity of the 1990s, would not have become law without bipartisanship and compromise among Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

Unfortunately, that is not the case today in Washington. As political columnist Charlie Cook pointed out recently, the service records of only 33 members of today’s 435 members of the House of Representatives extend back to the Reagan years. Very little appreciation of compromise and its place in politics yet remains. Instead, mega-partisanship and take-no-prisoner attitudes permeate our politics in Washington. As a result, little legislation of stature gets passed, the larger fiscal challenges facing our nation remain untamed, and the chasm of divided government becomes only wider.

If politics is the “art of the possible,” how did Congress become so impossibly dysfunctional? Several good books have taken a deep dive into the reasons, among them It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism by Thomas Mann and Norman Orstein. In addition, I have a few ideas of my own, based on 30-some years of experience in Washington:

The Commuter Congress. Fewer Washington lawmakers know and work with one other across party lines than once did. The Washington workweek contributes to this lack of collegiality. And fewer members of Congress actually live or own a home in Washington anymore. High home prices permit only the wealthiest members of Congress to do so. Instead, most lawmakers share apartments or houses on Capitol Hill like college kids, and some even sleep on cots in their offices and shower in the House gym. Because of these dismal living conditions, most lawmakers tend to remain in Washington as little as possible, usually no more than three days a week. A typical Washington workweek finds lawmakers in Washington only Tuesday through part of Thursday. That leaves little time for them to socialize with one another away from the office over a beer, a poker game, or a get-together with their families. With less time to socialize and get to know one another, few lawmakers find common ties. Losing those personal bonds makes it harder for members of Congress from opposing parties to see it through and work with one another, even on relatively easy legislative issues. Bare knuckles partisanship is easier when you don’t really know your opponent.

Vanishing Swing Districts. Fewer House members are elected from competitive Congressional districts anymore. The general rule is that competitive general election races between the parties usually produce winners that tend to be political moderates or centrists. But many state legislatures have redrawn the boundaries of Congressional districts in their states to significantly favor one party or the other. The winners, as a result, usually lean far left or far right. Consequently, incumbent lawmakers become more worried about their upcoming primary election than the general election—and their performance as lawmakers tends to embrace more polarizing, uncompromising behavior that will thrill the members of their own party back home and inoculate them from a primary challenge, but yield little legislative achievement.

Slashed Earmarks. After the press, watchdog groups, and many politicians several years ago demonized the practice of including special provisions in government funding bills that targeted funding for a specific project back home, appropriations bills became free of so-called “earmarks.” Yet for all their alleged warts, earmarks are often the legislative glue that brings lawmakers of different stripes together to support the underlying funding measure. When that glue is gone, the consensus underlying the bill dissolves. That’s why the Transportation-Housing appropriations bill, traditionally one of the easiest measures to get passed by Congress in the past, failed in the House earlier this summer.

So there you have it. Three reasons why Congress is so dysfunctional: a commuter-mentality Congress elected to one-party-dominated districts without the traditional incentive to yield and collaborate, even if only to secure parochial benefits for the folks back home.

Is there hope for the future? Maybe yes, maybe no. Perhaps things will have to get worse before they get better. Perhaps one party will have to ultimately gain control of the whole government—the Senate, the House, and the White House—and exercise absolute dominance in advancing and exhausting its agenda before the country wakes up to what’s happened and restores competitive politics and bipartisanship in Washington to their rightful place.
 

Bruce Moyer is government relations counsel for the FBA. © 2013 Bruce Moyer. All rights reserved

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