America's Congress Is Cracking Up
Dec 21 2012
After the nearly two-year-long period of yelling and lying known as the 2012 presidential campaign, you would think that now, finally, US politicians could sit down at their desks and get to work on solving problems. And you would be wrong. The main issue facing the United States isn’t that the bad guys are in control of the government, it’s that the government—in particular, Congress—can’t get anything done. Or won’t, same difference.
The basic contours of our national nightmare are apparent to anyone who watches the news—nothing happens in the Senate without a supermajority thanks to the constant threat of holds, filibusters, and other legislative jiujitsu, and partisanship has intensified to the point where votes are solely determined by party membership.
But America’s troubles are more deep-seated than could be accounted for by a rise in the number of ideological-minded assholes in office.
In The Broken Branch, a critical study of the House and Senate published in 2006, political scholars Thomas E. Mann and Norman Ornstein document the decades-long evolution of Congress, from a deliberative body run by specialized committees and long-standing norms to what it is today (a sycophantic cesspool). The book’s authors blame the gridlock not just on partisanship—which has been increasing since at least the 80s and was given a shot of steroids by Newt Gingrich in the 90s—but also on lawmakers losing pride in Congress as an institution.
The old practice of writing bills in committees that dealt with specific areas of policy and debating them on the floor has been replaced by passing bills written by party leaders and lobbyists on party-line votes before anyone has fully read their contents. Worse still, party leaders make committee assignments that aren’t based on seniority or merit, but rather the ability of chosen congressmen to raise money for their respective parties.
Donald Wolfensberger was a Republican staffer for three decades and is now a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Earlier this year, he told a Senate committee that “all this [campaigning] has grossly contorted the nature of the institution from a lawmaking machine into a money machine.” I spoke to Donald about this problem, and he was eager to criticize the culture of the constant campaign. “[Congressmen] still think that if they score political points and get reelected, the public will overlook the fact that all this partisan gamesmanship is going on,” he said. “But I think it’s slowly catching up with them. I think you’re hearing some different tones from members after this election, like, ‘Maybe we do have to get some things done.’”
The first thing they have to get done, as of this writing, is avoid the “fiscal cliff,” a package of tax hikes and spending cuts that no one wants but is due to kick in at the start of 2013 thanks to a brutally incompetent series of deficit-reduction negotiations that went on in 2012. Then the new Congress will have to talk about the deficit again and come to a consensus, which will be tough since, according to Donald, rank-and-file legislators are discouraged by party bosses from even attending bipartisan policy seminars, never mind actually working with the other side. I hope no one needs the federal government anytime soon.
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