Jonathan Wiseman’s article about Trent Lott in this morning’s WaPo ignores much of what's wrong with Congress, and demonstrates one of the primary reasons Americans don't know the real problems with Congress.
n January, as a dormant Senate chamber entered its fourth hour of inaction and a major ethics bill lay tangled in knots, Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) took to the Senate floor with a plaintive plea.
"Here we are, the sun has set on Thursday. It is a quarter to 6. The sun officially went down at 5:13. We are like bats," the veteran lawmaker lamented to a near-empty chamber. "Hello, it is a quarter to 6. . . . I have called everybody involved. I have been to offices. I have been stirring around, scurrying around. Is there an agenda here?"
The next 10 months appear to have given him the answer. A major overhaul of the nation's immigration laws went down in flames. Just two of a dozen annual spending bills passed Congress, and one of those was vetoed. Repeated efforts to force a course change in Iraq ended in recrimination and stalemate. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) filed 56 motions to break off filibusters to try to complete legislation, a total that is nearing the record of 61 such "cloture motions" in a two-year Congress.
And on Monday, Lott, one of the Senate's consummate dealmakers, called it quits.
Why, one might wonder, have things changed so much?
[B]onhomie and cross-party negotiating are losing their currency, even in the backslapping Senate. With the Senate populated by a record number of former House members, the rules of the Old Boys' Club are giving way to the partisan trench warfare and party-line votes that prevail in the House. States once represented by common-ground dealmakers, including John Breaux (D-La.), David L. Boren (D-Okla.), James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), are now electing ideological stalwarts, such as David Vitter (R-La.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
The two most respected experts on Congress are Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, authors of the recent book The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back On Track. In a recent talk on Congress with his co-author, Mann declared that "if you look at the 110th Congress in its pre-August legislative achievements relative to the 104th Congress after the 1994 elections, this Congress has produced a bountiful legislative harvest." It doesn’t appear that back in January there was no agenda. Instead, the problem is that Lott didn’t like the agenda, did his best to scuttle it, and defied the remaining "dealmakers" in the Senate.
To be fair, Wiseman acknowledges that there are still "dealmakers" in the Senate; he mentions Ted Kennedy, Orrin Hatch and Dianne Feinstein as Senators who will remain past 2008. He then goes on to describe some of Lott’s deals, like those made with Bill Clinton. But even there, Lott’s former chief of staff gave Weisman a dog whistle, and Weisman willingly blew on it:
The next year, White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles and Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin -- both wealthy Wall Street financiers -- sat huddled in Lott's office, as Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) tried to cut a final deal on a balanced budget agreement that included a cut to the capital gains tax rate.
"There they were, two Democrats who had been very successful in business, squaring off with two Republicans who didn't have two nickels to rub together," Hoppe recalled.
They struck a deal: Cut the capital gains rate and create a major federal program to offer health insurance to children of the working poor.
Sure, the rich Democrats couldn’t cut a deal until the poor, simple Republicans looking out for the little guy thought of their own humble roots and finally agreed to a compromise that gave kids insurance.
But let’s look at that specific example, and the prior and subsequent actions of those two Republicans. Doesn’t Wiseman remember that it was Gingrich’s grand strategy of obstruction that blocked the Clinton health plan in 1994 and helped him lead the Republican takeover of Congress? And Gingrich wasn’t able to get much through the Senate in 1995 and early 1996, because then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole didn't like working with Gingrich and sat on most things that came over from the House. Under pressure from his right, and feeling pressured by his Presidential campaign, Dole eventually resigned and Lott took over. It was then that Lott started ramming through odious legislation like the welfare "reform" bill and getting it on to Clinton’s desk. Since Gingrich was gravely damaged by the previous year’s governmental shutdown, Lott was able to broker a deal because both Clinton and, by that point, Gingrich were willing to deal.
But is Lott really still willing to cut deals? No. A great example of Lott’s unwillingness to make deals is Wiseman’s grand example, that "new federal program to offer health insurance to children of the working poor" created in 1996. You know that program; it’s called SCHIP, and in this Congress Lott has worked against Republican dealmakers like Hatch and Charles Grassley by repeatedly voting against the bill, and then repeatedly voting to uphold Bush’s veto of the bill.
Such obstructionism is running rampant in Congress, according to Mann’s Brookings Institute colleague Sarah Binder:
Majority leaders before Reid faced real constraints as Reid does, the reality of needing 60 votes, Trent Lott, Bill Frist, leading Republicans before Reid, but everything has been ratcheted up just a couple of degrees on the Senate floor with more cloture motions, more amendments for the minority party, Reid at least would say more
obstruction from the minority party, and so long as the majority party has only a slim lead and given the intense competition between the parties particularly in the run-up to the 2008 election, we really should not be surprised at all to see the intensity of combat on the Senate floor over getting those 60 votes.
Why has legislating in the Senate been so difficult? It’s not because of the committee process; Mann, Ornstein and Binder all observe a great deal more comity and cooperation than prevailed under Republican leadership. The problems exist mostly on the floor of each chamber after bills clear committee. In the Senate, according to Ornstein, it’s not that Harry Reid started out unilaterally imposing draconian rule:
Reid has been quite willing to allow Republican amendments and quite willing to negotiate a deal with McConnell to move business along. That has not been enough.
No, it hasn’t been enough, because it’s the Republicans’ deliberate strategy to NOT move business along, to NOT cut deals with the Democrats and to NOT actually pass legislation:
Is this obstructionism? Yes, indeed--according to none other than Lott. The Minority Whip told Roll Call, "The strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail. For [former Senate Minority Leader Tom] Daschle, it failed. For Reid it succeeded, and so far it's working for us." Lott's point was that a minority party can push as far as it wants until the public blames them for the problem, and so far that has not happened.
Maybe Wiseman missed that Roll Call article; after all, it might be expecting too much of the Post’s Congressional Correspondent to, you know, read Roll Call.
But there’s another problem with what’s happening in the Senate, a problem that Wiseman has repeatedly missed or simply ignored: the obstinate intransigence of George W. Bush and the willingness of most Congressional Republicans, including the leadership, to protect him rather than be responsible legislators. Here’s Mann:
I think we are about to see a series of symbolic fights waged [that have] everything to do with the motivations at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, but I would suggest primarily at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The first has to do with the appropriations battles. You all will be following them and fighting them. It is a con. The White House and the Congress are about $20 billion apart. This is less than 2 months of budget for the Iraq war. It is probably less than the revised estimate of the additional supplemental funding the White House will request for Iraq and Afghanistan. And there have been no substantive discussions. The White House wants to veto bills. If they were interested in working out an accommodation, they could do so, but the politics impel them to buttress their base by showing their fiscal fealty which is ludicrous given the big government conservatism that has characterized the first 6 years of the Bush Administration.
I think the fundamental reason for the inability of the parties to work together in this moment of opportunity, which is the profound weakness of the president with approval ratings hovering in the twenties and low-thirties, embattled by an unpopular war, and by a succession of scandals among other things, and of course, Exhibit A in this case is the president's strong desire to have as his centerpiece achievement in domestic affairs this year a comprehensive immigration bill and basically not even being able to get a third of his own Republicans in the Senate to support his bill, barely a quarter. It is the weakness of the president ironically that has stymied Democrats in their ability to move forward with much of the legislative product more than anything else. And unfortunately, the incentives of a president who has to fall back on even an eroded level of support in his own base is far more now to threaten vetoes, to use vetoes, to draw contrasts between his resolute conservative support and that of the Democratic Congress more than anything else.
So in the end, a good question to ask is why has this happened, that the Republicans have been able to gum up the works in the Senate, without the public knowing about it, without the public being able to blame the Republicans for obstructionism? Is it simply, as Wiseman suggests, that dealmakers have been replaced by partisans? No. Look again at his list; other than Bernie Sanders--who in the House actually was known for his dealmaking abilities--all the dealmakers he lists are Democrats replaced by Republicans. Therein is one of the root problems, Republican obstructionism facilitated by Republicans recently elected to the Senate.
Ornstein thinks another problem is the way business is conducted in the Senate. Individual members can place holds, it’s harder to push through legislation against the will of the minority, and the whole process is slow:
What can Reid do? An all-nighter might help a little. But the then-majority Republicans tried the faux-filibuster approach a couple of years ago when they wanted to stop minority Democrats from blocking Bush's judicial nominees, and it went nowhere. The real answer here is probably one Senate Democrats don't want to face: longer hours, fewer recesses and a couple of real filibusters--days and nights and maybe weeks of nonstop, round-the-clock debate, bringing back the cots and bringing the rest of the agenda to a halt to show the implications of the new tactics.
At the moment, I don't see enough battle-hardened veterans in the Senate willing to take on that pain.
Neither do I. Frankly, the House has been doing their part, but in the Senate, apparently too many Democrats—and I suspect Reid and Durbin are not among them—are too conflict-avoidant, or maybe just too unwilling to do the hard work that will be necessary to pass legislation AND to make it clear to the public that the problems in Congress are mostly the result of Republican obstructionism. They have not made clear the unwillingness of George W. Bush to compromise in the face of Democratic control and overwhelming public opinion in favor of the Democratic agenda Lott said didn’t exist but which he has obstructed from the start.
This is deliberate obstructionism which minorities try to use frequently but do not always get away with. In this case they are getting away with it, and part of the reason they are getting away with it is that Democrats have not been very artful at pointing it out as obstructionism, partly it is I think a serious deterioration in the quality of reporting of what is going on in Congress...
I argued a few months ago that we can’t wait for bipartisan solutions, because Bush and the current Republican leadership isn’t interested in solving anything with the Democrats. Even though they would prefer bipartisanship, much of the public is ready to accept that it may have to be Democrats and Democrats alone who will have to shape the legislative solutions to the problems facing America. But first the public has to understand what’s happening in the Senate, and that requires the Senate Democrats to dramatically and resolutely confront the Republican obstructionism, because much of the press either doesn’t sufficiently cover Congress, or the quality of Congressional reporting is horrible. For an example of horrible Congressional reporting, one need look no further than Jonathan Wiseman’s article in today’s Washington Post.