By Barney Frank, Guardian UK
Changing congressional rules is a good idea. But that won’t fix a Congress run by people who seek to render government ineffective
I recently participated in a panel convened by Esquire Magazine, in which they asked four retired members of congress –Senators Lott and Daschle, Congressman Livingston, and me – to make recommendations about how to improve the function of Congress, including syncing up the House and Senate’s schedules, eliminating gerrymandering and speeding up the confirmations of executive appointees. I agree with all of them.
But as I made clear in the panel’s discussions, there is a much more important step that has to be taken before they can have any real beneficial impact. The reason we have suffered from a wholly dysfunctional Congress for the past four years is not procedural: it’s political.
Changing the House and Senate rules, and having those bodies meet more frequently are all good ideas. But they will not fix a Congress run by people who seek to render government ineffective. Only the voters can change this.
As long as the Republican Party is dominated by leaders of extreme ideological rigidity, and they escape the blame that they deserve, the dysfunctional situation in Congress will continue. Voters who are unhappy at gridlock need follow only a two-step program: first, pay some serious attention to who has caused this breakdown; second, vote them out of power.
Review recent history: we did not talk about the total meltdown of the national legislative function under Ronald Reagan, nor George HW Bush, nor Bill Clinton, nor George W. Bush. Neither was complaint heard in the first two years of the Obama Administration. The problem began after the election of 2010, when there was a sharp acceleration of the trend to the right that had been occurring within the Republican Party for some time.
For an example, just look to January 2008, when Bush saw economic problems looming and he asked Congress to cooperate with a stimulus program. The Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, fully cooperated – and despite the fact that doing so would mean a better economy during the Presidential election year, they passed the legislation that Bush requested.
A little over a year later, when Barack Obama – facing an even more severe economic problem brought upon by excessive financial deregulation – similarly asked Congress for a stimulus, the Democratic leadership cooperated. But the Republicans (fortunately then in the minority) did everything they could to obstruct the President’s request. Even though a bill finally passed, the need to get three Republican Senators to vote yes on it led to a reduction of $80bn in the final package, retarding the extent to which the program helped the economy.
Or compare Representative John Boehner with House Speaker John Boehner. Early in the Bush years, he helped pass a significant expansion of the federal role in education – No Child Left Behind. I voted against it, but it was hardly a sign of Congressional dysfunction: Boehner’s main congressional partner in getting it enacted was then-Senator Ted Kennedy. Not 10 years later, Speaker Boehner assumed leadership of a House which vigorously obstructed any effort by President Obama to take legislative action on anything.
What changed was not Boehner’s own approach to governing, but the membership of the party that he was supposed to be leading. The Republican transition was by then complete: what was once a conservative party that sought to expand the role of the private sector (but understood the need for a vigorous public sector) had become a radical, right-wing group dominated by people who do not understand that government has any constructive role in our society.
Not surprisingly, with a Congress run in substantial part by people who do not believe government should work, it doesn’t.
Usually in American politics, when a party moves too far to its ideological extreme, it is punished at the polls. That happened to the Republicans in 1964 when Barry Goldwater was the nominee, and to Democrats under George McGovern. In 2010, that dynamic was superseded by the wave of public anger over the financial crisis and the means taken to resolve it. It is one of the saddest ironies of history that, while it was Republican policies which to a great extent brought about the crash, Democrats were penalized for what was needed to do to recover from it.
The most striking example of the public’s misreading of history has to do with the bail-outs. There were five of these in the crisis period: Bear Stearns; Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; AIG; the Troubled Asset Relief Program (which went to a variety of companies); and the auto industry. All five were initiated by George Bush but, despite that, public opinion polls show that the Democrats are blamed far more than the Republicans for authoring them.
Because of those attitudes, dysfunctional Republicans won control of the House in 2010 despite moving to an ideological position out of sync with the American people. It has created problems for the Republicans at the presidential level – as evidenced by Mitt Romney’s own lurch to the right to win the nomination, and his subsequent awkward effort to move back toward the center. It also produced Democratic Senate victories in five states where more reasonable conservatives could have won, had they not been beaten in their own primaries by extremists of varying degrees of implausibility.
A major obstacle to sensible politics is the intellectually lazy response of many unhappy voters with regard to the abysmal performance of Congress – the “a plague on both their Houses” approach taken by many, leading them to blame Democrats and Republicans alike for the problem caused by the Tea Party control of the Republican Party.
Fueled by that anger in 2010 and aided by Congressional gerrymandering in 2011 (thanks to having run so many state Houses in 2010), Republicans still hold the House and now threaten to take the Senate as well.
Ideally, Republican voters who still believe in government – albeit from a conservative perspective – will increase their participation in primaries so that the ideologically pure do not continue to dominate. But until that day comes – and people like former Senator Bob Dole and the 2001 version of John Boehner can exercise leadership in a sensible conservative party – it is up to the voters in November.
Once the extreme antigovernment faction has been driven out of government, the steps that I and my Esquire co-panelists recommended can play a very helpful role in improving the functions of Congress.