Political analyst Thomas Mann says Congress is deeply out of whack. Once a critical check on governmental power, Mann says decades of partisan bickering have left the institution weakened. This week on Utah NOW – Mann makes his case to get Congress back on track.
Studio guest Thomas Mann is a Brookings scholar and author of "The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track."
The Hinckley Institute of Politics is dedicated to teaching students respect for practical politics and the principle of citizen involvement in government. The institute invited Thomas Mann to speak at its forum event earlier this week.
For political analyst Thomas Mann, Congress has always been the first branch of American government.
But over the years – he says partisan bickering has caused the center of the institution to collapse along with regard for accountability and deliberation.
Tonight on Utah NOW – Mann describes the decline of Congress…
Political analyst Thomas Mann says Congress is deeply out of whack.
This week on Utah now Mann makes his case for getting Congress back on track.
Utah NOW, next.
Hello and welcome to Utah now, I'm Doug Fabrizio.
The glimpses most casual viewers get of Congress on television news or on C‑span may not reveal anything significantly different about the institution over time, the setting is the same, stylized language hasn't changed much. But for veteran observers like Thomas Mann, Congress today is decidedly different than in years past.
With his long‑time colleague and a fellow political analyst he recently published a book which traces what he sees as Congress being replaced.
Mann says Congress is out of whack.
After decades of partisan bickering it's gone from being a vital check on governmental power to what he calls a supine reactive body more eager to submit to the will of the president or political party than assert its own power.
Thomas Mann has been in Utah this week, a guest of the Hinckley Institute of Politics.
This evening he's joining us to talk about his book called “The Broken Branch.” which makes a case for getting Congress to reclaim its proper role in the American system.
First, it's not just academics who can tell something is wrong with Congress.
The most recent public opinion survey from the New York Times and CBS News just published this week reveals barely one-quarter of Americans approve of the Congress.
Utah is as ambivalent as the rest of the country about the trust they put in elected representatives.
As far as trusting them, I think there's good people up there with good intentions, I think there's a lot of policy, or more or less traditional ways of going about things that I think need to be changed I don't always trust the way they do things.
Ya gotta trust them, they make the law. Hopefully they have our best interest in mind.
Predominately do not trust Congress, again I go back to those very same things, I think that unfortunately they have their own best interest at heart as opposed to their constituencies and in many cases their using the lobbyists to line their own pockets.
I trust Congress, but I'm not sure that they always do the right thing because there are always things they try and sneak in, so it's kind of hard for them, because they're trying to do the right things, but it might not always work out.
There are times when I think Congress has said things that are appropriate and true, but most of the time it's hard to believe.
Sometimes I feel they really try to do their best, but there are so many other forces that determine how they vote and what direction they go, finances, friends, things like that, so it's difficult to know when to trust whom.
Oh, I think in the short term I don't trust them simply because there are too many political forces at play, but in the long term I think that the public opinion will prevail, so day to day probably I would watch my wallet, but over the long run I think that the American people will have their say.
Thomas Mann is with us, he is the W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. The full title of his book is “The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track.”
[Thomas Mann, Brookings Institute Scholar]:
Thank you, delighted to be with you.
I wanted to take you back when you first arrived with Norman Ornstein in Washington in the late 1960's. A little tumult related to the protests of Vietnam on the streets, but what were you seeing in Congress?
Listen, there was passion in the halls of the House and the Senate and the capitol building, the controversial war in Vietnam was finally eliciting sharp debates on the floor.
We saw those debates unfold, but what we'd see after the speeches were given, the members walk off the floor, George McGovern and a Bob Dole, arm in arm, to begin to talk about working on the food stamp bill, that is members had the capacity to argue vociferously their opinions on the war but find many other areas of agreement across party lines.
Over in the House, you would see the majority and the minority party participate in a set of debates.
There were amendments offered, lots of noise and conflict, but genuine debate occurred.
It was legitimate, it wasn't designed for one, to advance one party. It was actually conversation, actual debate.
It was the real thing, yeah. It wasn't all choreographed in advance, it wasn't simply about sending messages to particular constituencies, or party bases. There was actual debate about the legislation that was before the house and the senate.
In the book you say this is not just a stylistic problem. This is not just something that offends academics.
You say when you have bad process, that leads to bad policy. And lapses in ethics. Talk about that.
It really does.
The framers intended Congress to seriously deliberate and legislate, not to ratify decisions made elsewhere.
The idea was for them to roll up their sleeves and grapple with these problems, to have hearings, to weigh new information, and to argue amongst themselves in trying to find a public policy solution to a set of problems that was responsive to the problem, but also created a program that could be implemented and carried out.
Nowadays, we see legislation passed, in the dead of night, without any more than a handful of members knowing what's really in the bill, with pieces of it added out of favor to one interest or another, with little thought given to the kinds of implementation problems that one might have.
And as a consequence, it's a sin, not of gridlock and omission, but of commission, of actually moving legislation through in a haphazard way, denying the normal, regular order, as we call it, in which there are opportunities for debate and amendment, transparency, and instead we end up with legislation that we then have to figure out how to fix after the fact, and confront those problems.
A really good story that you tell, I think illustrates this pretty well. This was at the debate over the prescription drug bill. And the process had been that there was a certain amount of time, 15 minutes allotted to vote. Talk about how that sort of went awry.
This is in the House of Representatives where there's electronic voting, the rules say must provide 15 minutes. It's not a maximum, but the norm is the minimum is the maximum. You do this in 15 minutes. Occasionally it holds over until 20. One time the Democrats, when they were in power, held it over to 30 minutes because then‑speaker Wright saw himself losing a budget vote by one, a single vote, because one of his members had wandered off.
So he held the vote open, found someone else and passed it.
Then member of the house Dick Cheney was outraged, said it was the most egregious abuse of power he'd ever experienced in government.
During this Medicare prescription drug bill vote, that vote was held open, and this was, by the way, between 3:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. in the morning.
It was held open for almost three hours.
And a half hour, 45 minutes into the vote it was clear the nay side had won a victory.
They had an absolute majority in the house, but the leadership just felt it couldn't accept that, so they started putting pressure on individual Republicans, including a number of conservative Republicans who took great offense at this expansion of government.
They brought, Speaker Hastert brought the secretary of Health and Human Services to the floor of the House to lobby individual members.
This is a breach of the separation of powers.
It's something that is never done, but anything went as far as process was concerned, and it had its consequences.
It took us months, by the way, to discover what was actually in that bill.
It took members months to discover, and we've been trying to cope with some of the problems ever since.
Seems like that there's a significant difference in loyalties in this conversation.
There was a time when there was a loyalty for the institution of Congress, and it seems like that's been eclipsed by a different kind of loyalty, which is loyalty for party.
Is that right?
It really is true. Remember, the framers constructed this amazing apparatus in which politicians would have a self‑interest in defending their institution, and checking and balancing the others.
The conflict was essential to maintain a balance among the three, the executive, legislative, and judiciary.
If Congress doesn't defend its prerogatives, then the system gets out of whack.
And of course we've gone through a through a period of the most ambitious, aggressive assertion of executive power in our life times, maybe in our history.
Well, okay we get that from the presidency but where's the blow‑back from the Congressional?
In fact we've had very little and it's because of this sense of shared party fates, of agreement on ideological agenda.
We've got to stick together, we can't embarrass the president, we can't ask questions that might be difficult for him, even though it's those very questions, and that very fighting back that leads presidents to think more seriously and broadly about steps they're taking to make mid course corrections in policy, that is everyone is a winner when each institution asserts its authority and responsibility.
But Congress has failed to do that in recent years.
I want to show you another clip of Utahns reacting to some questions that we've asked them. This is a question that we asked whether Congress is reflective of who they are.
How it reflects their values.
Take a look at this.
Probably some of Congress' biggest problems is maybe they're not as attached to the rest of society as they maybe could be.
I don't think many of our congressional elected officials are really in touch.
I think they try, I mean I think they try to represent the majority of us.
I think a lot of Congress is just dishonest with each other.
I don't think there's a full accountability for listening to what the people say.
I'd say there's a lot of bipartisan bickering.
It's so one-sided and we don't seem to have the checks and balances of having a two-party-Congress right now it seems to be more one-party and yes it reflects the views of some people, but I don't know about the country as a whole.
I want to get you to react to that.
Because one of the points you make in the book is that the center has collapsed in Congress.
You know our last speaker really, really captured it.
Pointing out the sort of the strong partisanship, the intense partisanship in which one party feels obliged to dominate the other.
The representational link is critical to a healthy Congress, but it's been weakened by a dramatic increase in the number of uncompetitive districts and intense partisanship, so that most members of Congress have lopsided districts, Republican or Democratic, they only talk to that segment of the electorate, and therefore the people might be a little more in the center of finding themselves not being well represented in this environment.
It's a serious problem, and it then, if you combine that with the constant non‑stop fund raising, with the permanent campaign that goes on throughout government, it's not a period of campaigning followed by a period of governing.
They overlap intensely.
And then the complications of having to raise money, and the people who have money, you're more likely to listen to and therefore the average citizen back home, especially those more in the political center, are less likely to feel genuinely represented.
This is where it gets confusing.
Because it's built in, at least into the house, it's sort of built in the way incumbents are protected.
As you say, there aren't that many races that are really that competitive.
So the question is why they're spending this much time raising so much money.
And you talk about the fact that they really don't need to raise money in the book, that, but money becomes a currency of power in Washington .
It really is. You know, we move from the point where members are consumed with their own re‑election, to where they're consumed with their party's retention of the majority, or effort to win the majority.
It's all about a team approach, so the hundreds of incumbents who have no serious challenge are expected to raise big bucks, a million dollars, say, in the house, not for their own race, but to transfer to the party so it can go into the 10 percent of the races that are truly competitive.
So if you want to be a serious player in your party, you have to be a fundraiser.
If you want to be a committee chair, a subcommittee chair, a party leader you have to form a leadership PAC in addition to having your own campaign committee and go out there and raise a lot of money.
It really is a currency of power within the institution, and in this period of intense ideological polarization between the parties and rough parity the pressure is coming from the party leaders and organizations on all members to raise that money, whatever it takes is enormous.
Well, and then this is where the ethical lapses tend to come in it seems. There's the story you tell about, the story of Jerry Lewis, for example, in that, I guess that competition to get the head of appropriations committee.
This is very sad.
You would think one of the Republican reforms after taking control in 1994, was to set a term limit on the number of years anyone could serve as committee chair.
Seems like a good thing to rotate power.
But it means there are vacancies coming up all the time, and it means the leadership in the centralized power system is in a position to choose who those leaders will be.
And so what they do is have competition, fund raising competitions.
So Jerry Lewis had to engage in extensive fund raising along with Ralph Reguli and one other candidate.
They were out there doing everything they could to raise money.
This to be chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Now it turns out that Lewis had sent former staffers off to K Street to lobbying firms, who got clients, and then worked on the clients' behalf to get ear marks for contracts that Lewis helped with, then Lewis was able to raise money, campaign money, and get other Prerequisites of office from those clients.
It sets up an entirely unethical arrangement.
All of it is because of the press of partisanship and fund raising.
I want to ask you a question about culture.
You write in the book that the performance of Congress is shaped powerfully by the broader context in which it operates.
I want to show you an essay, this is part of our Speak Out Utah segment written by a man name the Paul Mero head of a local conservative think tank.
He worked in the United States Congress where he served two House members in the late 80's and early 90's and he read your book and more importantly he says he lived it.
Speak Out Utah
What can you say about a book that describes your life for a third of its pages? Except to say, perhaps there's another opinion. The Broken Branch , as you have heard today, is a book about the crisis of Congress. As someone who lived that crisis during what the authors describe as its critical years, I can tell you that the book misses its target.
Congress is a reflection of representative democracy. In other words, its representative of the American people. Congress isn't in crisis; the American people are. Politics-as-usual is a marketplace absent the restraint of personal virtue that makes it constructively function. To overcome this state of nature, citizens and their elected representatives must choose to temper their selfish impulses by exercising transcendent character.
Let's talk crises. Americans are in an identity crisis that has exacerbated a crisis of character. We don't know who we are, and because we don't know that, we don't know how to behave or what we value. Are we really surprised at the rancor, stubbornness, incivility, and partisanship in Congress? Have you ever been to a little league soccer game or a closeout sale at the mall?
Because the book's authors range in party affiliation from moderate Democrat to moderate Republican – which is a polite way of saying liberal – their analysis suffers from its own certainty of crisis. They fail to see the systemic roots of the problem.
They problem-solve, or “game” the system, when they should be searching to recover the underlying principles of leadership that governed an earlier time they revere. For the book's authors, our Founding Fathers are no more than clever rule makers to officiate democracy. That's like calling Stephen Hawking smart because he can maneuver his wheel chair. Forgotten is the brilliance of character our Founders exercised – the architecture of the nation is made up of more than the steel and stone of rules; what holds it all together is principled character.
The truth of the American political crisis is that for fifty years big-government liberals have politicized everything they touch, leaving limited-government conservatives with little choice but to fight back in a strictly politicized manner – the one begat the other. But the crisis of American identity and the loss of our collective character begat them all.
I'm Paul Mero.
Well, how do you react to that? The issue of character, I guess?
Well, it's an intelligent critique, and a venerable position about American politics that everything comes down to the virtue of the citizenry and their elected representatives.
It really has little place for political institutions, for the mechanisms of elections, for the way in which a country with disparate views reconciles its differences.
It takes one element of the framers' thinking, the importance of certainly, of republican, small R republican virtue but leaves out all of the Madisonian institutional side of our political institutions and how they operate to help shape public character and public participation, in politics.
Indeed, the character of individual representatives is important, but they, their behavior is shaped by the broader external forces and the particular dynamics that develop.
Interestingly, some of the most positive response we've gotten from this book has been from conservatives, who have argued that we really have the story right about what's happened, that they're very unhappy with the way in which party has come to advance big government conservatism, not a limited government conservatism, and that rank and file back bench Republican conservatives have been frozen out of a process which has become so centralized.
So I'd say he's got a part of the story, but missing the other huge part.
Well we should make clear that you say that none of this will end with a change in power. That power's not enough to transform the problems you see.
What I'm saying is, a necessary condition to begin to get beyond this is to throw the team in power out and give some opportunity for the other team, and then to hold them accountable.
But it's going to take broader changes in the political environment, but it's politicians who discover new markets in the political arena.
Look for John McCain or Mitt Romney, or Hilary Clinton, or John Edwards, Mark Warner to try to create a market more toward the ideological center than the polls.
We've been in a period of idealogical zealotry in which we've gone down some courses and paths that we now come to regret.
It's because we did them quickly, we were certain we knew what had to be done, we weren't willing to engage in the give and take debate, and make that transparent.
I think that's what we have to get back to.
You say that the country shouldn't, and in fact cannot in fact endure a broken branch for long. I want to ask you this finally. You say the greatest source of change comes not from within Congress, but from without, that is the people.
It really does. Politicians will fall into patterns of behavior if they feel themselves invulnerable, that they can manipulate the rules of the game in ways that keep them from being threatened.
To get their attention, the public needs to get mad as hell, and toss them out.
And then begin to ask different questions.
Why are you back home so often?
Why aren't you in Washington doing our business? For starters.
I think it has to begin there, but part of the reason for writing the book was to reach beyond the experts in the, inside the belt way and to reach an audience.
I think the public is viscerally unhappy with what's going on, and they need to see it given some form so they can do something about it.
Okay, the book is called the broken branch, Thomas Mann, thanks very much.
That's Utah NOW for this evening.
Thanks for joining us.
Remember you can continue the conversation by visiting our web site, you can send feedback to KUED.org.
In the meantime we'll be back next Friday with another edition of Utah now.
Until then, I'm Doug Fabrizio.
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