An Impotent Congress

An Impotent Congress

Americans believe that their government isn’t working. And they have good reason to do so. At present, Democrats and Republicans can’t find common ground on issues like healthcare reform, government spending, and immigration. Gridlock is the result.

Most observers blame the Senate for this dysfunction. Unlike in the House, the minority there can influence policy outcomes in several ways. Chief among these is the fact that the Senate’s rules permit a minority of its members to filibuster (i.e. block) legislation they oppose.

In theory, polarization makes it harder for senators to compromise by increasing the distance between the two parties. Senators agree on less and less as that gap widens and, as a consequence, the majority goes to greater lengths to avoid negotiating with the minority. Gridlock results when the gap becomes unbridgeable. At that point, the majority is left with no other choice but to eliminate the minority’s ability to obstruct if it wants to pass its agenda.

But in reality, the problem underlying Congress’s present dysfunction is a lack of effort, not polarization.  That is, the Senate is mired in gridlock because its members are unwilling to expend the effort required to legislate successfully in a polarized environment.

Sorry Trump, earmarks will only make budgeting harder for Congress

Sorry Trump, earmarks will only make budgeting harder for Congress

The legislative process is in shambles. Members of Congress are paralyzed by indecision. And once-mighty appropriators appear powerless, incapable of passing their bills without the intervention and active involvement of party leaders.

It’s been years since Congress completed its appropriations work before the Sept. 30 deadline. Just last month, leaders in both chambers had to resort to yet another omnibus appropriations bill to fund the government, almost six months behind schedule. To do so, party leaders had to craft the legislation behind closed doors, unveil it at the last minute, and force it through Congress with little debate and no opportunity for the rank and file to amend it.

This dismal state of affairs has prompted calls from across the political spectrum for enacting reforms to make it easier for Congress to pass appropriations bills. Of particular note are calls from Democrats and Republicans to revive the banned practice of earmarks in an effort to end the dysfunction. President Trump renewed the debate over earmarks when he suggested recently that Congress reconsider its nearly eight-year ban on the practice.

But before doing so, reformers would do well to consider the likely impact earmarks will have on the status quo. On closer inspection, it turns out that reviving the practice will not end present dysfunction. Rather, it will only make it worse.

Mitch McConnell promised to fix the broken Senate. Instead, it's only gotten worse.

Mitch McConnell promised to fix the broken Senate. Instead, it's only gotten worse.

Writing on the similarities between political parties in 18th-century England under the pseudonym Cato, Thomas Gordon observed that “all men dread the power of oppression out of their own hands, and almost all men wish it irresistible when it is there.”

It turns out this timeless dynamic also explains well the similarities between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to managing the Senate today. The truth is, leaders of both parties appear uninterested in fixing what their members universally disparage as a broken process.

Congressional Budgeting is a Matter of Will, Not Procedure

Congressional Budgeting is a Matter of Will, Not Procedure

History is important. We ignore its lessons at our peril.

But don’t just take my word for it. Consider Niccolò Machiavelli’s observation in The Discourses that from the past we gain “knowledge of things honorable and good as opposed to those which are perilous and evil.” Or John Dickinson’s assertion at the Federal Convention of 1787: “Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.”

We shouldn’t dismiss such observations today simply because they appear to be disconnected from the realities of modern life. We are not as far removed from the days of Machiavelli and Dickinson as we may think.

In his memoirs, the American portraitist George P.A. Healy recounted a conversation with John Quincy Adams decades before in which the sixth president recalled having met Voltaire as a child. “Writing about these things in 1890 gives one an impression of the long succession of generations holding each other by the hand until they fade into the far-away past.”

Given all of this, the optimism with which fiscal policy wonks are greeting Congress’ latest attempt to fix the broken budget process appears to be misplaced.

Republicans are making it harder to confirm Trump's nominees

Republicans are making it harder to confirm Trump's nominees

Republicans are growing impatient with the Senate’s pace in processing President Trump’s judicial and executive branch nominations, and they blame Democrats for the delay.

But contrary to Republican finger-pointing, the Senate’s unhurried pace is not due solely to Democratic obstruction. On closer inspection, it turns out that Republicans are also to blame for the status quo. Specifically, the way in which McConnell and his Republican colleagues have structured the confirmation process this Congress has empowered Democrats to delay work on otherwise uncontroversial nominees. 

Given their role in the matter, Senate Republicans could speed things up. To do so, they must refuse to cooperate with Democrats in delaying presidential nominations and instead enforce the Senate’s existing rules governing the confirmation process.

 

What Is the Purpose of the Senate?

What Is the Purpose of the Senate?

At what point does an observation become a cliché?

When it comes to politics, this matters because it is in those moments when the way in which we think about an issue becomes settled.

That is, the transformation of a telling comment into an uninteresting statement reflects a deeper shift in how we understand the world around us. When what was once considered insightful is treated as banal, the transition from one way of thinking to another is complete.

Consider, for example, how we think about the Senate today. It’s broken. On that, at least, virtually everyone can agree.

Popular frustration with the Senate is nothing new. And calls to change its rules are an evergreen feature of our politics. In a sense, this frustration is something all Americans have in common. It transcends ideology and partisan affiliation.

But underpinning this widespread agreement is a shift in the way Democrats and Republicans understand the Senate’s role in our political system.

When hatred of Trump leads to disdain for debate

When hatred of Trump leads to disdain for debate

The way in which Eliot Cohen denounces Trump illustrates a tendency pervasive among political combatants at present to, in the words of Livy, “play the tyrant” against their opponents.

And therein lies the problem. This common tendency toward tyranny poses the biggest threat to American democracy in the 21st century. Not Trump.

By trying to delegitimize those with whom they disagree, commentators like Cohen shrink the political sphere to deny their opponents the right to participate in the first place. In the process, they conveniently sidestep the need to engage in a substantive debate over what’s acceptable presidential behavior or what constitutes good public policy.

Can the filibuster long survive?

Can the filibuster long survive?

The government shutdown last week prompted, like clockwork, renewed calls to abolish the legislative filibuster at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

President Trump and congressional Republicans believe curbing the practice is essential to passing their agenda over the Democrats’ objections.

But the Senate’s present dysfunction cannot be pinned solely on the minority party. And focusing on the filibuster alone as the source of congressional gridlock overlooks the ways in which Republicans can get the Senate working again simply by changing their own behavior. This is because the way in which they run the Senate makes it easier for Democrats to obstruct their agenda.

Instead of changing the rules using the controversial nuclear option, Republicans should try enforcing the Senate’s existing rules. Doing so allows Republicans to stop Democrats from preventing votes on important legislation simply by saying, “I object.”

In the midst of a shutdown battle, Republicans should embrace conflict

In the midst of a shutdown battle, Republicans should embrace conflict

The only thing remarkable about the situation is how utterly unremarkable and familiar it has become. The reason no one really thinks the government will run out of money is that this kind of thing happens all the time. In each instance, Congress somehow passes a catch-all omnibus bill at the last minute, or its members simply give themselves more time by extending current funding.

There is no reason to think this week will be any different. And therein lies the problem.