On the Record

Congress, Partisanship and Paralysis

Thomas E. Mann

Thomas Mann joined Tom Ashbrook of On Point and Larry Evans to discuss whether Congress has become too dysfunctional at fixing our nation’s problems.

Tom Ashbrook, host: At a time where the United States is facing historic challenges, giant problems, Congress can feel like the place solutions go to die. It’s been called the broken branch of American government. Is it more broken now? This hour, On Point a time of challenge, some say crisis is with us. What’s going on with Congress? You can join the conversation, what do you see on Capitol Hill: money politics, partisan death match, paralysis, the American way. Can Congress step up this country’s problems?… Joining me now from Washington is Thomas Mann, congressional scholar, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. In 2006, he co-authored with Norm Ornstein, The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track. Thomas Mann, thanks very much for being with us.

Thomas Mann: Tom, very happy to be with you again.

Ashbrook: And from Williamsburg, VA, we are joined by Larry Evans, congressional scholar at the College of William & Mary. In the early 90s, he worked in the office of Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana and on a bipartisan Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress, he’s writing a book on party leadership in Capitol Hill. Larry Evans, thank you very much for being here.

Larry Evans: Oh, thanks very much, it’s my pleasure.

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Ashbrook: Thomas Mann, help us here, we’re just trying to figure what’s going on. Some say, well, it’s just the American way. Democrats have an agenda, the Republicans don’t like it, and they’re doing everything they can to stop it, so it’s not moving. And if that’s the way it is, that’s just the way it is, that’s what this country does. On the other hand, a lot of people are saying, we are really at a crossroads here; the fate of the nation is hanging on the balance and right across the horizon from energy to education, to health care to banking, you name it, we’re not getting enough action out of Congress and it’s not funny any more. How do you see what’s going on here, Tom?

Mann: Well, as you might expect there’s a bit of truth in both perspectives. On the one hand, there have really been substantial accomplishments in this Congress. The public doesn’t like to recognize it, but within a month, they passed a major stimulus bill, coordinated with the G-20 that together helped avert a global depression; that ain’t bad. Since then, they have passed 15-20 pieces of not insignificant legislation. And they are in the midst of and may still pass major health reform, the likes of which we haven’t seen in many decades. A reform of the financial system, major education reform and not cap-and-trade now, but some energy legislation [are also in the works]. So listen, let’s catch our breath; it’s not all falling to pieces. On the other hand, the problems that led Norm Ornstein and me to write our book about Congress’s problems, the ideological polarization of the parties and rough parity between the two, meaning you can have a change in party control of the House and Senate and of the White House, has produced parliamentary-like parties with extraordinary internal unity, but they’re operating in the congressional system, which in our case includes the supermajority hurdle in the Senate, because of the filibuster. With the Republicans’ decision to just oppose and that supermajority hurdle and party unity, we had a lot of very divisive difficult, indeed obstructive politics and it doesn’t look too good.

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