The Collapse of Congress

This is part one of a three part series on Congress.

The Current State of Affairs

Last week, Barney Frank said something stunning – he said that Barack Obama needed to take more assertive leadership in the current economic crisis.

At first blush, Frank’s statement might not seem troubling. On further reflection, Frank is admitting that Congress is unable to provide leadership for the nation. Frank’s comment is especially revealing when you consider that Barney Frank has a history as one of the House’s more outspoken members – he’s no fading violet but he’s still asking for the President-elect to offer Congress leadership.

A few months ago, on Bill Moyers, Andrew Bacevich described Congress as a dysfunctional institution, one incapable of ending an unpopular war being waged by an even more unpopular President. Over the last decade as Congress has become an increasingly and distressingly incapable institution – incapable of carrying out its Constitutional duties, an isolated backwater whose members are focused narrowly winning re-election that they have little ability or interest in actually governing. Congress, in other words, has utterly collapsed as a functioning branch of government.


Basic civics: The US government is divided between three supposedly equal branches. Each branch is given specific powers, but the other two branches are given the authority, as necessary, to rein them in as necessary. If Congress passes a law that violates citizens’ rights, the courts can strike that law down. Congress, however, has the right to refuse to seat a Federal judge as well as to impeach them once they are on the bench. The president nominates the judges but those judges are not answerable to the president. Presidents are able to propose legislation, to veto legislation, and to enforce it. Congress doesn’t choose the president but is able, in the case of high crimes and misdemeanors, to impeach the president.

At various points in US history, the balance of power between the branches has changed – at some points Congress held more power and stature than the president or the courts. Throughout the post-World War Two era, Congress’ power and influence devolved as the President became more and more influential and powerful – one might even say imperial. Andrew Bacevich observed in his interview on Bill Moyers that Congress has relinquished a great deal of its power to the President, often in the guise of national security. Congress – trapped in endless internal bickering – become less and less able to actually lead.

Leaders of both parties have often passively deferred to Presidential leadership – waiting to take their cues from the White House. Congress has utterly failed as an effective check on executive power and has utterly collapsed as a balancing force in the government. Robert Byrd argued, in Losing America, the part of the problem lay in the mismatch between Congress and the President in terms of information. The President heads a branch of government with several million employees. By contrast, a few thousand, including office staff and the CBO report directly go Congress. Congress is utterly dependent on the President for information about intelligence and national security. If the president instructs his appointees to lie, Congress has no way of disproving it (fwiw, I don’t think the solution is to create a separate national security apparatus answerable to congress – it is to bring the reform the current system so it is answerable to both executive and legislative branches). Byrd may be a blowhard with an overweening ego, but he is spot when he argues that Congress has stopped performing its duties as a counterweight to the presidency.

The principle of checks and balances requires the three branches actually function as equals.

A huge part of the problem rests in the inherently anti-democratic nature of the Senate (a problem I’ll address later). Congress – rather than acting as an agent of positive change has been hijacked by the most conservative and reactionary forces in American society. Congress had the power to strike down Jim Crow, to end Iraq, to create policies to deal with the current economic crisis and yet it has consistently failed to do so. At the same time, Congressional leaders have increasingly followed the White House – forgoing efforts to maintain Congress as an independent and powerful branch of government, they have lapsed into pointless rounds of unproductive debate and procedural blind alleys.

Worryingly, the legislative branch has all but abdicated its power of the purse. The House, not the White House, not the Senate, not the Courts, is empowered to propose spending bills. Tax bills should begin in the House as well. Taxes and budgets are the core of government power and policy. Yet Congress does little more than nibble around the edges of presidential proposals – using their power to add earmarks to bills so individual members can claim to be working for their districts. The earmarks laughingly decried by John McCain exemplify congressional weakness – a debased and powerless body currying voters’ favor with pork barrel projects.

Systems theory offers some insight into what has happened here.

As Congress has failed to do its job, citizens have turned to the courts and the executive. A feedback loop formed and reinforced legislative weakness. The Courts overturned Congress’s laws, the Executive ignored, worked around or manipulated Congress into doing what it wanted. Congress, trapped in its own weakness became increasingly incoherent – unable to formulate policy, Congressional leadership had drifted badly. Policy has been sacrificed in the name of procedure. I’ve criticized Democrats for engaging in an endless series of false compromises, believing that bipartisan support meant that bills must be good since they could pass.

The internal culture of Congress was so skewed against taking stands, against making waves, against leading that members have become unable to make policy, unable to lead, unable to act as a counterweight against the other branches.

But wait! What about the Clinton impeachment? Wasn’t it an act of a powerful, coequal branch of government?

No. The Clinton Impeachment was the only action left to a weak legislative branch.

The Contract With America was a smart PR move, but it was unworkable as actual policy. As a result, the Republican Revolution of 1994 quickly collapsed as a force for setting national policy. With each political move effectively countered or outright stolen by a cagey and astute Clinton White House, Newt and the other Congressional Republicans played defense most of the time. Their biggest, boldest move – the government shutdown – blew up in their faces.

Unable to be part of the national debate, an increasingly irrelevant Congress engaged in frantic efforts ever less effective efforts to guide public debate and policy. Unwilling and unable to engage in mature policy negotiations with the Clinton administration, Congress resorted to scandal-mongering and endless, pointless investigations. Despite years of time and millions of dollars, Ken Starr was unable to prove any wrongdoing by the Clintons in Whitewater – and resorted to a petty, panty-sniffing moralizing.

Gingrich, unsurprisingly, lost his leadership role in the House over the affair. The impeachment was so transparently trivial and motivated by little more than anti-Clinton animus that the American public simply rejected it. Republican leadership misread the public’s mood and mishandled the shutdown and came cross as petulant and puerile rather than as mature leaders debating the great issues of the day.

After Impeachment, Congress shuddered to a halt. So ineffectual had Congress become that it was unable to hold meaningful debate about the Iraq war and fell into jingoistic nationalism or cynical and empty political posturing. At a time prominent Democratic members should have been rallying all congressional members to demand a full and thorough debate, when they should have been acting as a counterweight to the Bush administration, they engaged in political calculus so cynical, so shallow that it destroyed Kerry’s presidential run before it got off the ground and damaged Hillary Clinton’s credibility sufficiently to create an opening for Barack Obama. Republicans, by contrast, were so desperate for a leader of any kind that they rallied behind Bush as he treated Congress with contempt.

After a promising start in 2007, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have fallen prey to the institutional malaise.

How were they unable to use Congressional power to end a profoundly unpopular war being waged by a profoundly unpopular president?

Republican Senators have abused their power to shut down debate and stop bills from reaching the president’s desk. Congress should have been sending bill after bill to end the Iraq war and withdraw US troops – Bush could have vetoed them left, right and center. Instead, a minority party with no plan was using legislative tricks to prevent any action at all. Some commentators have pointed out that the now lame duck 110th Congress had more filibusters than any other Congress in history. The filibuster – once the final measure to stop bad policy- has become nothing more than a tool for thwarting the legislative process.

So out of practice is Congress as setting public policy that in the face of the worst economic meltdown in decades, members of Congress have been reduced to following the lead of the Bush administration – which quite literally has no clue about what to do beyond throw money at the problem and hope something that looks like a solution emerges. Congresscritters – absorbed with Congressional infighting and endlessly jockeying for chairmanships within congress – have utterly lost the ability to actually lead or wield power. Paradoxically, beyond saying “no” members of Congress have no real influence over policy. As individuals and an institution, they are simply incapable of setting the terms of debate.

The Collapse of Congress has far-reaching and devastating effects. Popular measures fail, unpopular laws pass, public debate is stifled and twisted. Congress’ ineffectuality has allowed bad ideas – the war in Iraq, the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts – to become public policy without anything like a full and fair debate. Leaders of both parties have yielded to partisan loyalty rather than patriotic public service. In the current climate, it makes sense to fight to win and preserve congressional majority rather than to lead a fight good policy. But it has resulted in a government so dysfunctional that it cannot act in accord with the will the people. The practice of our Constitutional government is at odds with our democratic principles. To put it even more bluntly: Democracy, rather than being served by our government, is being subverted by it.

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  1. #1 by Richard Warnick on December 9, 2008 - 1:54 pm

    I wouldn’t come to any sweeping conclusions yet about the demise of the legislative branch. On paper, Congress still has the power. I think the problem is Speaker Pelosi won’t step up to the plate because she is too fearful of what happened to Newt Gingrich.

    Pelosi could have single-handedly cut off funds for the occupation of Iraq by refusing to schedule a vote on appropriations bills. She could have impeached President Bush, too. Congress could have at least investigated Bush. But the Democrats on Capitol Hill remembered when Republicans overreached during the Clinton administration, and it made them timid.

    If I were a Democrat in Congress, I would not be afraid to use the GOP playbook when necessary. Why get elected in the first place, if your only plan is to stand by helplessly and duck responsibility?

  2. #2 by Glenden Brown on December 9, 2008 - 2:32 pm

    I don’t think congress is down and out – it has simply become so internally dysfunctional as to render is largely irrelevant within our larger national debate. The automakers bailout is a perfect example – Democrats have caved to the Administration’s demands even though the Administration is obviously incapable of coming up with a plan that would work. Instead of drafting their own plan and pushing it, Congress has flailed around incoherently. As an institution, Congress has ceased to carry out its actual role.

    I’m working on a post in which I outline what I think need to happen to correct the problem.

  3. #3 by Glenden Brown on December 9, 2008 - 2:43 pm

    – FWIW –

    Republicans in the 1990s vastly overreached – since taking the majority, Democrats have consistently drawn the wrong conclusions from that experience. But, those Democratic congresscritters experience of congress has been the experience of 1994 and since – Congress at its most dysfunctional. They’re so accustomed to Congress being incapable of doing anything, it’s what they expect to happen. It’s systems theory – if you limp for years because your shoe doesn’t fit, then you get shoes that fit, you’ll keep limping for a while it’s how you are accustomed to walking.

  4. #4 by Rialto on December 9, 2008 - 5:26 pm

    Given the arrest of the governor of Illinois for the attempted selling of Obama’s senate seat, once the link is made and the people wake up, Obama will have about as much leadership power as Bush currently does now.

    Watch him deny not knowing. These are his people, and as they sit and wait to go to jail, they will sell him, and the rest the lot out.

    We are in real trouble.

  5. #5 by Shane Smith on December 9, 2008 - 6:50 pm

    “once the link is made and people wake up”

    What link, please do enlighten us with your insider knowledge.

  6. #6 by Shane Smith on December 9, 2008 - 6:58 pm

    “How were they unable to use Congressional power to end a profoundly unpopular war being waged by a profoundly unpopular president?”

    Glen, I believe we have talked about this before. You are right there, this is a question so amazing just in the fact that it has to be asked, that it boggles the mind.

    I submit that it is nothing less than evolution in action. We have evolved a subspecies of human being that lives as government members. It is capable only of being elected, as that insures survival. When frightened it puffs up, shows its (lapel pin) colors, and makes a loud warning cry about patriotism. It is an evolutionary dead end.

    The saddest part is that faced with a choice between people who can do nothing, and people who are very good at destroying, the do nothing group is the better choice.

    I mean who do you want in office, people who are very good at destroying the country, or people who want to help, but are unable to do anything?

    Will they figure out that they are limping from habit before it is too late?

  7. #7 by Rialto on December 9, 2008 - 8:37 pm

    Rezko and the guvner, and the roads lead to the Obama connection. Rezko of course sold Obama his house at a 300,000 dollar break. This is how Chicago politics works, guess no one remembers Rostenkowski.

    Bet Obama is smokin’ like a chimney today.

    Ya’ll been had. First rule of non corrupt political attempts in the US….

    Don’t elect anyone from Chicago to national office. We are just lucky to be finding out this early.

    Got to love the news stories, “Obama working to distance himself from the guvna” says the yahoonews. Like trying to distance yourself from your own ass.

  8. #8 by Ken on December 9, 2008 - 11:18 pm

    What did Obama know, and when did he know it? It looks like scandal may rock the Obama Presidency before it even starts. The Honeymoon may be coming to an end.

  9. #9 by Becky on December 10, 2008 - 5:42 am

    You sound so hopeful, Ken. I know it was a pretty big disappointment when the SCOTUS refused to hear the birth certificate case. Don’t hold your breath.

  10. #10 by Shane Smith on December 10, 2008 - 8:16 am

    I have to admit that with all the scandals that we have seen under the Bush administration it is pretty entertaining to watch you two get all excited about something that as yet has no real information or evidence.

    Is it entirely possible that something is going on here? Sure, but so far there is no evidence that I have seen to implicate Obama. I remember this phrase about innocent until proven guilty……. where did I hear that?

    So Ken, Rialto, I trust you two went against the general right wing solidarity to demand the head of Karl Rove over outting an agent. I assume you are asking your congressman to impeach Bush over torture. I…. well lets just say I could go on.

    None of which lets Obama off the hook if, IF, he has a part in this. But in the Bush cases we have evidence. In this case we have a story that has yet to even start to cough up details. Try not to drool on the keys, and try not to freak out if it so happens that he isn’t involved.

  11. #11 by Ken on December 10, 2008 - 8:20 am

    No, I do not wish ill will on Obama. If Obama was involved it would be very bad for the country and make it even more difficult to dig us out of this economic morass. I hope Obama has no involvement in this, but it certainly needs to be looked into. As far as Obama’s Birth Certificate, I wish Obama would tell the Governor of Hawaii to unseal his original Birth Certificate (if there is one) so it would put to rest people’s suspicions.

  12. #12 by Rialto on December 10, 2008 - 8:31 am

    Without question there Shane buddy. Some of us smell corruption as a visceral phenomena. Rove has the stench, and I surely wanted the last admin out on its ass.

    That said, the trial of Rove, and the substantive evidence, are not coming forth in any court of law. There have been no convictions. This is the measure of guilt, not what we wish or think.

    Obama has that stench of corruption, and has since his competition with Hillary, and his constant distancing of himself with the birds of a feather that he has flocked with over the course of his political life.

    In the end it will be you that could be saddened and surprised. I already am given the “has been” appointments to his cabinet. Anyone over the age of 40 with a clue knows that Chicago politics are the most corrupt in the nation, and no one can rise to any level in it, without participating.

    The proof will come when the guvna’ is convicted, and faces 20 years in the federal pen. Then the bird will sing. Anyone got a light?

  13. #13 by Richard Warnick on December 10, 2008 - 12:28 pm

    I’m amused, as Shane is above, that now we are going to see the right wing in high dudgeon over perceived wrongdoing in the White House– after they spent eight years defending all of Bush and Cheney’s malfeasance. It’s great entertainment for those of us who appreciate absurdity.

  14. #14 by Anonymous on December 10, 2008 - 12:43 pm

    We as humans laugh while we can, for those watching our leaders from an independent standpoint, there is really no change apparently, simply a differing style in the methods of malfeasance.

    Laughter brightens the mood, though the reality remains.

    Our path in Afghanistan will qualify what form of Empire we will continue to pursue. At current juncture, our nation is depending on it. 500 billion dollar military budget, and 1 trillion in new spending, so a budget deficit of 1.5 trillion.

    Change alright.

    We will all be paying in the form of the devaluation of our money, as this is money that will be created out of thin air. It makes whatever you are holding worth less. Better known as worthless.

    Now that is what call, chump change.

    Maybe the good guvna was trying to simply raise revenue for the good people of Illinois.

  15. #15 by Shane Smith on December 10, 2008 - 1:05 pm

    “Some of us smell corruption as a visceral phenomena”

    Ah, much as Bush always knew a good man by shaking their hand and looking them in the eye?

    No, I need at least something resembling evidence before I choose to believe something. So far all I see you offer is hope for what you wish, and promises that the future will show that you were right.

    Forgive me if I keep looking for proof.

  16. #16 by Rialto on December 10, 2008 - 4:37 pm

    You will get it Shane. It will be sad.

    Where is the proof incontrovertable that would put Bush in jail? He wasn’t even impeached, let alone convicted.

    The measure of that truth will resound despite your own visceral opinions of Bush, that I concur with. Obama may avoid the truth as Bush has, but he has nothing on Bush, who was a masterful president that walked 10 feet tall over all opposition.

    Like it or not.

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