Norman Ornstein: Worst. Congress. Ever.






Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a weekly columnist at Roll Call.

Dana Carvey had a character during his years on Saturday Night Live who was a crotchety old man complaining about how much better everything was "in my day," the imagined halcyon times of his past. After almost 42 years immersed in the politics of Congress, I have to check myself regularly to avoid falling into the same trap. When I came to Washington in 1969, for example, the city was riven with division and antagonism over the Vietnam War, which segued into the impeachment of a president, followed by many other difficult and contentious moments. In this case, though, Carvey's old man would be right: The hard reality is that for all their rancor, those times were more functional, or at least considerably less dysfunctional, than what we face with Congress today.

In 2006, I wrote a book with the Brookings Institution's Tom Mann called The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, in which we reflected on the high level of dysfunction in Congress that had been building since the 1990s. From the Clinton years through the middle of George W. Bush's second term, partisan division had been accompanied by a growing ideological gulf in Congress, and along with it had come a decline in institutional loyalty and other norms, the near disappearance of meaningful debate and deliberation, and a sharp decline in the "regular order," the adherence to and respect for the rules and procedures that normally operated in the legislative body.

Two years later, we wrote a second edition to reflect the change that had come with the return of Democratic leadership to Congress, noting at least some marginal areas of improvement, albeit within the larger context of continued dysfunctionality. We were hopeful that Barack Obama's sweeping victory in 2008, along with the robust gains for his party in both houses of Congress -- a sharp contrast with the controversial 2000 presidential election and the razor-thin margins in Congress that followed -- might bring a return to more functional government and a proud and functioning First Branch. That did not mean a supine and kneejerk Congress bending to the will of the president, but one vigorously asserting its independent role, through oversight and other means....

The American political process is inherently messy and disputatious. When I first came to Washington, in 1969, it was a period of divided government: A new Republican president, Richard Nixon, was faced with a Democratic Congress, marking the 15th consecutive year of their majority. Divisions were intense, particularly over the Vietnam War. But the divisions were not mainly along partisan lines. Among the strongest supporters of the Nixon approach to Vietnam were the Southern conservative Democrats (called "Boll Weevils" in honor of the insect that infects Southern cotton) who then made up about 40 percent of the majority in Congress, and also chaired most of the foreign policy and defense-related committees and subcommittees. Among the strongest opponents of Nixon's Vietnam policy were the northern liberal and moderate Republicans (called "Gypsy Moths" for the bug that hits Northeastern hardwood trees) who made up about a quarter of the minority party in Congress -- senators like Mark Hatfield of Oregon, who coauthored, with liberal Democrat George McGovern of South Dakota, the main legislative vehicle to pull the United States out of Vietnam.

Although Nixon's presidency ended prematurely in his second term under threat of bipartisan impeachment, he enjoyed a long period of productive domestic policymaking, with Democrats joining him and his party for legislative programs like revenue sharing and education reform. Sometimes Nixon was able to work with liberals, but more often he forged a centrist "conservative coalition" that included Southern Democrats joining most of his congressional Republicans....



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