Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Two Congressional Experts Explain What Has Gone Very Wrong With Congress

Two Congressional Experts Explain What Has Gone Very Wrong With Congress
Friday, Aug. 11, 2006
Congress is out of order. In the words of two of the most knowledgeable experts in the nation on the legislative branch, "it is broken." This conclusion is not the judgment of out-of-power partisans: Thomas E. Mann, the Senior Fellow in Government Studies at the Brookings Institute, and Norman J. Ornstein, a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, have been studying - and working with and for - Congress since 1969.

Mann and Ornstein are hands-on political scientists who have been in Washington, and immersed in the workings of Congress, for almost four decades. Regardless of who runs Congress, they will continue their work. But during the last decade, they have grown "dismayed at the course of Congress." Although the deterioration began while the Democrats were still in control, it has, under the Republicans, accelerated and approached crisis dimensions. And a dysfunctional Congress affects our democracy profoundly.

On behalf of the institution to which they have devoted their professional lives, Mann and Ornstein are now speaking out, in The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How To Get It Back On Track (Oxford University Press). I mentioned their book briefly, prior to publication, in an earlier column; now, it has been released, and it is excellent. Its timing is fortunate too, as Congressional elections will be held this November. If only Americans would listen to what the authors have to say.

Their book is not long, yet it is remarkably comprehensive. Mann and Ornstein examine both the House of Representatives and the Senate, but for purposes of this column, I'll focus on the House.

An Overview of the Problems with Today's House of Representatives

"Over a decade of Republican control, the House went from shrill opposition to a Democratic president, culminating in his impeachment, to reflexive loyalty to a Republican president, including an unwillingness to conduct tough oversight of executive programs or assert congressional prerogatives vis-à-vis the presidency - on matters ranging from the accessibility of critical information to war-making," Mann and Ornstein write.

The House's current refusal to check its same-party President is only one of many problems the authors describe. Even more basically, they note, the House has become "an institution that has strayed far from its deliberative roots and a body that does not live up to the aspiration envisioned for it by the framers." This fact has serious consequences because "[b]ad process leads to bad policy - and often can lead to bad behavior, including ethical lapses."

This, in fact, is precisely what has occurred. Consider legislative fiascos, like the way representatives broke House rules to twist arms to vote for Medicare changes that benefit special interests. Or consider the embarrassing and improper intervention by Congress into the end-of-life care controversy regarding brain-damaged Terri Schiavo. Or think of energy legislation that takes better care of energy producers than consumers. The list is long and unpleasant, for these are only few examples....