Public's Disdain Worries Congress

Lawmakers start to ask if their handling of the Lewinsky affair will harm the system

Like an uninvited, boorish guest in living rooms across America, the spectacle of the presidential scandal has provoked widespread disdain - not only at President Clinton's moral failings, but at the perceived partisanship by independent counsel Kenneth Starr and, most recently, at the bickering in Congress.

Indeed, a growing disconnection between a largely disapproving public and the tawdry drama consuming Washington is raising serious questions about the American government and politics, experts say.

With the Clinton presidency in crisis, is Congress handling its weighty responsibility to judge him as it should? Are America's major institutions working? Will there be any long-run impact from the scandal on key branches of government?

Even amid the stately corridors of the Capitol, now abuzz with the latest word on impeachment, a creeping self-criticism is afoot. On the House floor, the Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin recently called the Starr report and the surrounding events "a phenomenally gross verification" of "the accelerating failure of our institutions."

"I don't think this House right now, with the partisan zealousness that is rampant, has the capacity to handle a parking case fairly - much less something of this importance," bemoans the 29-year veteran lawmaker in an interview. Republicans are also voicing their dismay - among them Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut, an advocate of congressional accountability and reform. The public's disapproval of Congress is rising, he says, "because we are bickering, because we look petty."

Ironically, such sentiments indicate that what began with Clinton's sullying of his presidency could also end up tainting Congress and the office of the independent counsel - with possible long-run implications for the powers of them all.

"There has been a clear breakdown in institutional relationships, in terms of institutions working together to achieve certain ends," says Joel Grossman, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Several underlying trends help explain why national leaders, and Congress in particular, are having difficulty dealing with this ungainly episode in American political history, experts say.

Congress is more ideologically polarized today. "So many debates are split along party lines and driven by ideological enforcers ... that when bipartisanship does occur, we are almost startled by its appearance," says Mr. Obey.

Younger members from the extreme right and left now outnumber seasoned moderates able to promote a bipartisan consensus. Such divisiveness is especially pronounced among rank-and-file members of the House Judiciary Committee, which will decide whether to proceed with impeachment hearings. "A lot of young members are used to battling it out," observes Mr. Shays. "You need a few more Joe Liebermans," he says, referring to the centrist Democratic senator from Connecticut.

Congressional leaders should act as moderators who "come in periodically and rein in the absurdity," Shays says, adding that partisan fighting is not becoming of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia. Also, today's lawmakers are more individualistic, they serve for shorter periods, and are less committed to the goals of the institution and the party, analysts say. "We have rampant individualism," says James Thurber, of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at the American University in Washington. "This weakens the leadership."

All these factors fuel partisan squabbling and negative "attack" politics that suggest that lawmakers are acting with narrow, unfair motives, rather than serving the broad national interest. The acrimony, in turn, is exacerbated by constant media scrutiny and instant "sound bite" journalism.

"Every snag, every disagreement is magnified," says Richard Fenno, a Congress expert from the University of Rochester in New York. "The impression you get is one of total chaos." These political dynamics - and possibly adding to public frustration - is a constitutional system based on the idea of the separation of powers. This system pits together the three branches of the federal government - especially Congress and the president - in an often slow, drawn-out competition for influence.

Impeachment was designed as a long, deliberative process - a last-resort power through which Congress could remove a president. "Right now we are stuck between a slow process and an impatient public - that's the dilemma," says Professor Fenno.

In the near term, the reputation and influence of Congress will depend on how it handles this dilemma. If, despite the obstacles, it can muster a bipartisan consensus, the public will be more supportive and willing to accept a slow impeachment proceeding, or other resolution such as censure, experts say.

The results of the November midterm elections will mark another gauge of public sentiment on the Republican-led Congress, with consequences for the president and independent counsel.

If the Republicans make gains at the polls, they are likely to attempt to broaden and strengthen the powers of the special prosecutor when the Independent Counsel Act comes up for reauthorization next year, Professor Thurber says. Similarly, he says, a stronger Republican majority in Congress may attempt to further weaken the presidency through its powers of oversight and appropriations.

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