Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Everyone Hates Congress. Always. Always.

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. 


  1. Wonderful myth-busting, and fitting that it comes from a confirmed Klein admirer.

    More Congress busting below -- from the opening number by John Adams in the musical 1776. I imagine this closely tracks Adams' copious letters:

    A second flood, a simple famine,
    plagues of locusts everywhere,
    or a cataclysmic earthquake
    I'd accept with some despair:
    But no, you sent us Congress --
    Good God, Sir, was that fair?
    You see, we piddle twiddle and resolve,
    not one damn thing do we solve...
    piddle twiddle and resolve! --
    Nothing's ever solved
    in foul, fetid, fuming, foggy filthy

  2. I like this blog, but, after clicking to Schmitt's article, I think that you egregiously misinterpreted what he was saying. Schmitt wasn't hearkening back to some golden age of Congressional giants. Rather, he was arguing that members in that era cared much less about the noise of public opinion in their district. He says that this attitude may have been a bastion of white male privilege and that it is no longer available. Essentially, he says that the Democrats have to learn to deal with the new environment and that is an interesting area for research in political science.

    Nowhere does he say anything about reforming Congress and nowhere does he wax nostalgic. Your use of his argument here was intellectually dishonest.

  3. JonM,

    First, let me say that I do appreciate the comment -- it's a model of how to take a blogger to task, and I definitely like serious criticisms and critiques.

    Second...I'm going to defend my post. Well, I'll start by conceding that I focused on one part of an interesting and balanced post by Mark Schmitt, and I should have said something nice about it, since I do think it's worth looking at. However, I do think that my reference here (in the first paragraph) is a fair reading of that portion of his post. And, yes, I do think the premise of his post is that Congress, or at least Democratic Congresses, are less productive now than in the past, and I don't think that's correct, unless "the past" is limited to a handful of cases scattered through history. Obama and the Democrats are getting a lot done, full stop. Oh, and one other thing...I bet Henry Waxman is at least as arrogant (in a good way) as anyone from the 1960s or 1970s.

  4. As a frequent reader of both Ezra Klein's blog and your own, I think that you're looking at this issue from two different perspectives:

    1. THE POLICY ARGUMENT: As a policy wonk, Ezra has often noted the negative effect that arcane Senate rules have had on legislation (such as HCR, ARA, etc.) I think that many liberals agree with Ezra and would love to see the legislative process streamlined, so that policy would be more clear and simple to implement. (Ezra and other liberals seem to think that doing away with rules such as "holds" and filibusters would result in more action and thus, more popularity for Congress and the legislation that it produces.)

    2. THE POLITICAL ARGUMENT: If policy can be set aside, it is politically advantageous for both parties to maintain the status quo, as long as power continues to oscillate between them. If the "arcane" rules are done away with, then the agenda of this years congress faces increased risk of having its work undermined in the future.

    Legislation that is made more difficult to pass as a result of an arcane process is also made more difficult to repeal as a result of the same process.

  5. I think anonymous is right that Jon & Ezra are looking at the issue from two different perspectives, but the THE POLITICAL ARGUMENT seems to be missing a piece.

    The fear of having one's work undone explains why politicians might hang on to arcane rules, but it doesn't explain how those rules came about.

    Perhaps the difference in perspective is more a matter of time. Jon takes the long view, reaching back to the 19th century. Ezra has made much of the relatively recent rise in filibusters and cloture votes and holds, and from that viewpoint the present looks particularly disfunctional.

    If I recall Jon has written that the present Republican obstruct everything strategy is historically unusual, and that strategy especially relies on arcane rules.

    Isn't Ezra a reformer, just like the guy (sorry, do not remember his name) who pared cloture back from 67 votes to 60 votes. Or the guys who with Wilson introduced cloture?

    If one wants to reform Congress (and rules typically do need periodic adjustment) doesn't one have to make the case that things are particularly bad nowadays? As a matter of rhetoric if nothing else?

    Ezra is a good government march of progress guy. Telling people like him that nothing is new under the sun is wise but also off point.

    No argument of Bayh, however. Bayh seems too much of an empty suit to recruit as a poster boy for a cause.

  6. I too love Ezra Klein but didn't like the Newsweek piece. Granted it was better than most Newsweek articles, but watching Ezra slip into the Time/Newsweek style, with its snazzy intro that glosses over important points and its ending here-are-my-genius-solutions-to-the-problem-wrapped-up-with-a-shiny-bow, is annoying. Its why I stopped reading magazines and started reading blogs. But again, Ezra pulls it off better than most so for the general reading public its a win.

  7. Shoot, that was a Buffyverse low blow.


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