Congress as ‘The Broken Branch’

Even before the Mark Foley scandal broke, the 109th Congress was suffering from intense partisanship, legislative impasses and near-record-low public approval ratings. Incumbents are scrambling for reelection in the Nov. 7 general election, in which the Republican majorities in both houses are at risk. Regardless of the outcome, few lawmakers expect to rack up enough triumphs in the Nov. 13 lame-duck session to send the 109th Congress into the history books with high marks.

Two of the most knowledgeable congressional scholars are Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. Their new book is “The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.” They recently answered questions about their findings and views.

Q: Is the current Congress demonstrably more partisan than those in the past? Why does it matter?

MANN : Partisanship particularly increased after the 1994 elections and then the appearance of the first unified Republican government since the 1950s. Now it is tribal warfare. The consequences are deadly serious. Party and ideology routinely trump institutional interests and responsibilities. Regular order — the set of rules, norms and traditions designed to ensure a fair and transparent process — was the first casualty. The results: No serious deliberation. No meaningful oversight of the executive. A culture of corruption. And grievously flawed policy formulation and implementation.

Q: Congress has been rocked by the Foley scandal. Was the House GOP leadership’s response an example of reflexive partisanship? Are there larger lessons to learn from it?

ORNSTEIN : Part of the response to Foley was undoubtedly human nature — lawmakers wanting to take Foley at his word that he wouldn’t write any more improper e-mails. But it is hard to look at the responses of the collective majority leadership, including Speaker Dennis Hastert, GOP campaign chair Tom Reynolds and Page Board chair John Shimkus, without putting them into a context that makes it more damning.

The entire leadership team made sure that there was no significant ethics or lobbying reform in this Congress. They knew their majority was hanging in the balance, that the Duke Cunningham-Jack Abramoff-Tom DeLay scandal problem had not coalesced into an electoral catastrophe. The last thing they wanted was another embarrassing scandal. There is a lot to suggest that there was a systematic state of denial here, and an indifference to the possibility of a bigger problem that Foley might represent.

Q: One party has controlled the White House, Senate and House for most of the past six years. Why have Republicans found it so hard to enact priorities such as comprehensive immigration changes, a Social Security overhaul, and even nuts-and-bolts legislation such as a budget bill?

ORNSTEIN : One answer is the small majorities that Republicans have had in both houses; it is hard to command perfect party unity in both houses for any length of time in our political system. But the Democrats had much larger margins for the first two years of Bill Clinton’s presidency and also had immense difficulty making anything major happen. United government in an age of fierce partisanship and sharp ideological polarization between the parties does not work very well for very long. . . .

Q: Congress is meant to check and balance the other branches, especially the executive. How have members’ attitudes changed in recent years about Congress’s institutional role?

MANN : It is striking, the extent to which the Republican majority in Congress deferred to the president in the face of one of the most aggressive and ambitious assertions of executive authority in American history. . . . They are now paying a political price for the policy consequences of their inattention. In Iraq, for example, it has meant flawed planning, poor implementation and no midcourse corrections. . . .

Q: Few incumbents of either party face a serious risk of electoral defeat. How has this affected Congress’s work? Does it make House members bolder, less inclined to blow with the political winds?

MANN : The last five congressional elections have produced fewer incumbent defeats and seats changing party hands than any comparable period in American history. Congressional districts have become safer for one party. . . . Those recruited, elected and reelected from such districts tend to reflect the ideological pole of their party rather than the center of public opinion.

Incumbency adds a layer of advantage on top of this party dominance. But rather than foster an environment in which members of Congress feel free to buck popular sentiment and wrestle seriously with the problems confronting the country, it reinforces the ideological divide between the parties. Incumbents are safe, but party majorities are not. This fosters symbolic votes, message politics and little serious legislating in Congress.

Q: Don’t voters deserve some blame — maybe a lot — for Congress’s shortcomings? Do we get the government we deserve?

ORNSTEIN : Sure, voters — and even more, non-voters — deserve some of the blame. The low turnout we get exaggerates the power of the ideological activists who do turn out, skewing the system away from the middle.

But voters do not create the system that shapes the districts into noncompetitive ones, nor do they play a meaningful role in recruiting the candidates we get. . . . And we cannot expect voters to pay close attention to the ins and outs of the legislative process, until some crisis demands it.

It is the voters’ surrogates, including the press, who have to alert them when something is seriously wrong. But ultimately, only a credible threat that the public is prepared to throw the rascals out will change the ways in which politicians in Washington operate.