The Constitution made Congress the preeminent branch of the federal government. Even in an age of an imperial presidency, our govt was not designed to function with a paralyzed national legislature.
Yet, we have had one for many years now. Congressional dysfunction began to grow to dangerous levels in the 1990s, as our two main political parties polarized and as the Gingrichian philosophy of treating routine politics as Manichean warfare migrated from the House to the Senate. Yet, even then Congress still was able to perform most of its basic functions most of the time: Passing annual an budget, enacting new laws and needed amendments to old laws, confirming executive and judicial nominees, ratifying treaties, overseeing the executive branch, etc.
On January 20, 2009, that changed too. In a strategy unprecedented in American history, the Republican Party decided the day Barack Obama took office to paralyze Congress completely so as to deny him any chance to pass any of his agenda. Universal filibusters. Refusing for months or years to confirm routine nominees. Negotiating in bad faith and refusing to follow established legislative procedures. Manufacturing budget and debt payment crises and using them to blackmail the president and the country. Non-existent or sham oversight of federal agencies. I could go on and on about the details, and I just might at our meeting.
The non-partisan part of my point is an uncomfortable one to face. Our democracy’s smooth functioning depends less on formal laws or rules or checks and balances than it does on the willingness of our politicians to value the institutions they serve; accept the other side’s legitimacy when they lose elections; and follow informal rules and norms of conduct when they govern, including simple self-restraint.
Obama has used executive power to get around some of this total obstruction. As we’ve discussed, this poses a problem in and of itself. Still, I consider congressional paralysis to be one of the worst problems of our political age. I’ve made sure we talk about it periodically; e.g., 2015 (Who runs the GOP?), 2014 (Can our political system still solve problems?), 2013 and 2012 (GOP congressional brinkmanship), and even six years ago in 2009 (What’s wrong with Congress?)
Why do it again? Because we have entered an even more dangerous stage of democratic deterioration. The Republican Party is now itself broken and that has made Congers doubly-dysfunctional. Since at least 2014, a rump faction in the House, egged on by talk radio and others, has routinely used the same brinkmanship and blackmail tactics on its own leadership. The House “Freedom Caucus’s” demands cost Speaker John Boehner his job and, as I write, his successor Paul Ryan is desperately trying to prevent another govt shutdown on December 11.
Is this our new normal? How can the leading country in the world disable its own national legislature? Can something be done to fix The Broken Branch? On Monday, I’ll go over some of the competing diagnoses for what is driving this car wreck, and then I’ll list a few of the possible solutions. Not all of them involve just changing which politicians and party control Washington.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What do people mean when they say Congress is broken/dysfunctional? How is “broken” different from “not doing what [insert speaker] wants?”
- Why has this happened? Is it a problem of leadership, rank and file members, political parties, interest groups, the news media, or voters?
- How is congressional dysfunction related to our broader political struggles, like partisan polarization and the rise of Trumpism?
- What can be done to repair our national legislature?
- What if Congress can’t be fixed or isn’t fixed? How will we be able to govern ourselves and cooperate to solve national problems?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Congress’ role –
- Congress is the first branch of govt and presidents cannot magically force it to do anything. Recommended.
What Broken Means –
- Basic problem. Or, try this explanation. Either recommended if you don’t know basic story.
- UPDATE a must-read: Oversight of executive branch activities is one of Congress’s most vital functions. But the GOP disgracefully formed a special committee to “investigate” the Benghazi attacks and mutated it into a smear committee that’s sole purpose was to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton. This is one of the most disgraceful abuses of power in congressional history. A must read.
- The Constitution is the problem – but not for the reasons you think! Interesting.
- Extreme ideological polarization in the Republican Party and only in it.
- Worse, “procedural extremism” has followed political extremism. Recommended.
- Republican voters demand their leaders never compromise.
Solutions (??) –
- Speaker Paul Ryan may unify the House and the Senate GOP might get rid of the filibuster entirely.
- If GOP wins in 2016, problem solved!
- Forming a coalition govt – seriously! A must-read.
- An American soft dictatorship is one possible future. Carl mentioned this worry – recommended.
Next Week: Is their a constitutional right to privacy?