How Bad Are Things in Congress?

US-CongressThis goes without saying, but things are pretty bad in Congress. A 15% approval rating, intractable political division, and few incentives for bipartisanship have created the most, “do nothing Congress” since WW2.

Slate interviewed three outgoing Congressmen to get some honest insights into just how dysfunctional things really are. I’ll post Rep, Steve LaTourette’s [R-Ohio] comments, but you should read the whole thing. Once a member of Congress knows they are heading out the doors, the spin and political talking points are discarded. Their honesty is both refreshing and depressing:

Rep. Steven LaTourette [R-Ohio] was elected in the 1994 Republican wave, taking over a seat in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland. On paper, Democrats occasionally sketched theories of how he could be beat. But they never got close. LaTourette established himself as a pragmatic conservative and ally of John Boehner, there when the party needed him, and there to shame extremists when they blew up a compromise. Last week, after Boehner’s conference refused to pass a fiscal cliff “Plan B,” LaTourette told reporters that the “continued dumbing-down of the Republican Party” had done them in. He’d decided to retire months ago.

  • The campaign against earmarks really started with Jeff Flake. He’d pick out the ones that had the funniest names, and force votes on them, before we could vote on spending bills. At the outset, he’d lose 300 or more votes, and the exercise seemed pretty much impotent. It never really got legs until the “Bridge to Nowhere,” probably, in 2005. That became the symbol for earmarks. It became a symbol beyond a big amount of money going to a home state. It was something going to for-profit entities.
  • Anytime you’re explaining, you’re losing. You can explain Article 1 Section 7 of the Constitution. You can explain that this money will be appropriated whether or not members of Congress earmark it. But this new class that came in, in the last Congress, they’re looking around, they see the stimulus package, they see the administration handing out tiger grants or whatever it may be, 70 percent of them go into districts controlled by Democrats, and [these freshmen Republicans] stop earmarks. Eventually they want to rescue some scenic area in the district, and they’re told that earmarks were the way to do that. They say: Oh, I didn’t realize that.
  • We have too many “message” votes. I don’t need to have a vote on abortion every month, a vote on guns every month. I have a good relationship with labor. Labor wants one thing: Davis-Bacon. And these new guys, no matter what the bill was, wanted to put repeal of Davis-Bacon in it. It didn’t bother me, but it might have bothered some of the freshmen. Is anybody confused that someone from North Carolina or Georgia is right-to-work? No. Then why have the vote?
  • You’ve had people for a generation running against the Congress. It’s not just enough that you have an honest disagreement with the Democrats. You have these groups—Heritage Action, Club for Growth—shooting at Republicans. It’s a constant pounding, people saying, “You’re a RINO, you sold us out.” The Red State blog guys, I know that after I announced, they wrote: “Best news of the century, LaTourette to retire.” How could that be the best news of the century?
  • The best day I can remember here was when we passed the Balanced Budget Amendment in the House. I recall getting somewhat emotional over that. Between 1996 and 1998 you get welfare reform, you kick out a major highway bill. You get a lot of good work done, and it was because Bill Clinton was willing to triangulate the Democrats. He’d actually reach out and talk to us. This president doesn’t work with us at all.
  • The Clinton impeachment was one of those things—and both parties do this—where we overplayed our hand. Public opinion was not treating President Clinton well, but it seemed like we had to go and make sure that people knew what he did. That’s always our tendency on these things—you want to jump in. But the American people love an underdog. It turns when they think you’re turning on President Clinton, they turn to him. It just had to go the way it went. People were too invested. When it left here, and it went to the Senate, there was no way the United States Senate would remove the president from office. So America got treated to this horrible display, and it wasn’t one of our better moments. President Clinton would have suffered, I think, in terms of popularity and his agenda, if we’d just left him alone.
  • This fiscal cliff thing is the most foreseeable crisis in American history. People had time to put together solutions. There just wasn’t a lot of good work done. I don’t care how good the deal is, if Grover Norquist says it’s a tax increase, you’re going to have 40 to 120 Republicans voting against it. If it touches Medicare and Social Security, you’re going to have Democrats running against it. I think this was why, when I said I was going to retire, people were coming up to me and saying: ‘I wish I would have done that.’ Or, ‘This is my last term.’ There’s a high build-up of frustration in the way things are going.
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4 Responses to How Bad Are Things in Congress?

  1. I’ve been studying this phenomenon for years now. When ideological commitment devolves into intransigence at all costs, then a serious problem exists. Not just politically for the nation at large, but individually for the mental health of those involved. Although it is getting no media attention, the incidence of Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD) is growing in the U.S. The illness is associated with a stubborn denial of reality and facts, in combination with a callous disregard for anyone or anything considered to be outside a selected insular group. This condition is more widely known as “sociopathy,” but is not strictly synonymous with it. The last time America’s political system was afflicted to this degree was the late Antebellum period prior to the Civil War. If sensible Republicans, or the larger electorate, cannot sort this out, extremist elements within the GOP have the potential to cause a great deal of harm.

  2. Congress gets over a third of the calendar year off for vacation time. When they are in “session” they clamor and bicker to reach a short term fix before a major deadline. If I worked with this same ethic and lack of productivity I’d be fired. A long time ago.

    It’s perplexing how this type of behavior is accepable by voters. Accountability is sorely lacking.

    • Congress is supposed to be spending that time at home with constituents listening to what they want them to do. If they didn’t come back for that third of a year, we’d be all up in arms over how these guys are stuck in Washington and can’t hear what we’re saying!
      It’s not really a “break,” though I sure more than a few members treat it that way.

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