The United States Congress has ceased to be a deliberative body, according to two eminent political scientists with some ideas about how to fix it.
Mann (Brookings Institution) and Ornstein (American Enterprise Institute), both of whom arrived on Capitol Hill in 1969 with fellowships to study Congress, and have been doing so ever since, here review the evolution of Congress from the republic’s founding to early 2006. Bipartisanship was already waning in the final years of the era of Democratic dominance, they argue. The Republican leadership, which was trying to be provocative in order to “nationalize” Congressional races, was often denied a role in drafting important legislation, while the Democrats used the rules to pass bills with little discussion. The authors note that Speaker Newt Gingrich’s initiatives after the Republican landslide of 1994 were in the spirit of earlier reforms, de-emphasizing seniority and seeking to foster bipartisanship—but this attempt was abandoned. When George W. Bush won the presidency, House majority leaders saw themselves as mere agents of presidential policy. Party-line votes on important matters have since become the norm. Members of Congress now seem to feel they are in Washington to vote rather than to adequately discuss policy. Key pieces of legislation are badly written because amendments are not allowed. When they can, many Congressmen stay in Washington only three days a week, resulting in a decline in the quantity and quality of their work. Members of Congress have little interest in overseeing the executive branch or in how Congress functions; the latter neglect has occasioned a host of ethics scandals, which the authors discuss in detail. They also suggest independent oversight of lobbyists and five-day congressional workweeks, while recognizing that polarization in Congress reflects polarization in the country as a whole.
Most of the criticism here goes to Republicans—largely because they are in power—but the wealth of detail offered by Mann and Ornstein gives partisanship a good name.