I haven't had a chance to comment yet about Ezra Klein's Big Think Piece about Congress in this week's Newsweek. Longtime readers will know that I'm a big fan of Klein's work, but I'm not really a big fan of this article. Sometime soon I want to take on some of the substance, but right now I just want to comment on his framing of the issue, which depends on the idea that (1) people hate Congress right now, and (2) Evan Bayh is retiring because he's frustrated with how things work in Congress. On top of that, we have Mark Schmitt today complaining now about the "legislative giants of an earlier era" and how they got things done because they felt entitled to rule. Klein, meanwhile, claims that "Congress used to function despite its extraordinary minority protections because the two parties were ideologically diverse."
I'm sorry, but all of that is nonsense.
1. People always hate Congress. Mark Twain hated Congress. Will Rogers hated Congress. Johnny Carson hated Congress. Jay Leno hates Congress, and I suppose the disembodied head of Jay Leno will be hating Congress decades into the future. That Congress is unpopular is about as remarkable as a Joss Whedon show getting lousy ratings on network TV.
2. Members of Congress are always retiring and saying that they're frustrated by the legislative process. As Hibbing and Theiss-Morse said fifteen years ago, "It is now common practice, both for those retiring from Congress and for those staying, to complain about the hectic pace, the difficulty of passing legislation, the lack of comity among members, shrill demands from the people, the demanding interest groups, the intrusive media, and the byzantine, balkanized legislative process." That's not because of recent developments in the Senate; it's because it's frustrating to be one of 100 (or 435), not to mention that there's another House of Congress, and then the president. But, Evan Bayh notwithstanding, this isn't a particularly high-retirement era. There are quite a few Senate retirements this cycle, but a lot of those are GOP retirements probably having more to do with being part of a seemingly long-term minority than they are about any new frustration with the way the Senate works. And House retirements are not high.
3. Congress rarely functions efficiently.. Yes, the Democrats did manage to pass a lot of stuff in 1964-1965, and generally that kicked off a decade in which lots of things passed...but that's an exception, not the rule. Before that, there was about fifteen years of bitter stalemate. A year into the Kennedy presidency, many liberals were certain that American government was outdated and couldn't possibly work without massive, Constitution-changing, reform. The big difference between now and then is that now Congress actually is passing lots of stuff. That doesn't mean that reform is inherently a bad idea, but it's simply not true that Congress is more gridlocked now than it was, say, in 1937-1963. In fact, it's a lot less gridlocked.
4. Did I mention that everyone always hates Congress? One of the most well-known articles by a political scientist was Richard Fenno's explanation of why everyone hates Congress but likes their own Member of Congress. Two things about that: it was written in 1972, which presumably was the era of Schmitt's "legislative giants," and it was written in response to Ralph Nader's claim that Congress was the "broken branch." This within a few years of the modern Congressional Golden Age of 1964-1965. Everyone always hates Congress. They hate it a bit more this year, because people hate Congress even more than usual during bad times, but basically everyone always hates Congress.
None of which is to say that Congress is or isn't in need of reform. But please don't tell me that Congress needs reform because people don't like it, that Members slam it on the way out (or while running for re-election by running against Congress, another thing that Fenno knew thirty years ago), or that some bygone Golden Age dwarfs the current body -- I'll take Henry Waxman and health care reform against most Members, and most years, or even decades, from the past. If one thinks that Congress needs reform, one needs a better case than that.