Briefing

Top 9 reasons Congress is broken

Congress's approval rating is barely at 10 percent, and the venerable institution is filled with such rancor that moderates such as Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine are fleeing the place. From people who've previously served on the Hill comes this assessment of the top nine problems Congress faces today.

By , Staff writer

2. Republicans at fault, especially those newcomers

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    Freshmen congressional members and their staff arrive for their first day of orientation on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 15, 2010.
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Two Washington scholars set cable television tongues a-wagging with their boldly provocative op-ed in the Washington Post, “Let’s just say it: The Republicans are the problem.”

And these aren’t two lefty partisan hacks: One of the authors, Norman Ornstein, is a widely quoted scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. The other, Thomas Mann, is a longtime Congress-watcher, working out of the Brookings Institution in Washington. 

Their critique of the contemporary GOP, published April 27 in the Washington Post, boils down to this:

“The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition,” they write. “When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.”

This is music, of course, to Democrats’ ears.

“I expect Republicans to defend their right to take different positions, but at some point, at some time, we as a country have to actually figure out a way to solve our problems,” said former Rep. Tom Downey (D) of New York. “Dealing with that will need the energy and courage of two political parties working together, not one trying to stab the other in the heart.”

It’s not so much that Democrats are pure as driven snow, Mr. Mann and Mr. Ornstein write, but that they’ve largely hunkered down.

“Democrats are hardly blameless, and they have their own extreme wing and their own predilection for hardball politics. But these tendencies do not routinely veer outside the normal bounds of robust politics. If anything, under the presidencies of Clinton and Obama, the Democrats have become more of a status-quo party,” they write.  

Where Democrats clearly didn’t adore George W. Bush, they “worked hand in glove with the Republican president on the No Child Left Behind Act, provided crucial votes in the Senate for his tax cuts, joined with Republicans for all the steps taken after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and supplied the key votes for the Bush administration’s financial bailout at the height of the economic crisis in 2008. The difference is striking.”

Are Republicans the problem? Both parties, without a doubt, engage in political knife fights with few policy gains at stake. And it's not as if Republicans aren’t popular across the country.

“Nothing says marginal extremism like holding the US House, most state houses, most governorships, and a plurality of national party ID,” wrote RedState.com managing editor Erick Erickson, in a blog critiquing the argument of Ornstein and Mann on April 30.

And it isn’t as if Republicans are operating in a vacuum.
 
“I do think there are bigger forces than one party over the other, there are bigger forces than extremism versus moderation, there are some fundamentals about the environment in which Congress operates” more significant than single-party obstruction, says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. 

But Mann and Ornstein insist: “Today, thanks to the GOP, compromise has gone out the window in Washington.”

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