Why Congress Is So Dysfunctional



            The Sunday talk shows again this week devoted a lot of attention to the dysfunction of Congress. In fact, it was the theme of Face the Nation, which featured two members of the Senate with a reputation for bipartisanship, Democrat Bayh of Indiana and Republican Graham of South Carolina.

            The degree of Congressional dysfunction is debatable.  Make comparisons: The number of votes cast, or days worked, or bills introduced versus those enacted into law.   Or apply a historical perspective. Most congresses since the first in 1789 have been considered dysfunctional to some degree or another, and since the founding of the nation there has been a running debate over whether it was the intent of the Founders to inject more than a little dysfunction into the process to keep the Federal Government confined.  

            Few would argue that Congress has been dysfunctional for decades, through Republican and Democratic majorities, through Republican and Democratic Presidents, through divided control and one-party domination, through crises and calm, through good times and bad, through good leaders and bad.   Its procedures and the collective behavior of its members do not produce anything close to what the public expects of its public servants. Even when it does get something done, it is absolutely incompetent at communicating its meager successes to the public it serves.  A little dysfunction is one thing, but in perpetuity is another.

            And now, with the country in recession and fighting two wars; when politicians continue to suffer baffling lapses in ethics and morality; and when Congressional leaders and the President of the same party can’t seem to fulfill even a few of the great expectations they created in the 2008 elections, the dysfunction is just intolerable.


            So maybe its time for a serious look at why Congress doesn’t work absent the anger, frustration and partisanship; absent the complaints of those who profit by exploiting Congress’ weaknesses, and absent the 10-second sound bites that over-simplify a complicated problem.  Face the Nation took a good first step last Sunday, only to be big-footed by host Bob Schieffer who believes the only problem with Congress is too much money in politics.

            There are at least six fundamental reasons for the Congressional curse.  Some can be cured.  Some can’t.

1.         Rules, procedures, precedents and traditions that are either outdated, abused, ignored, or slighted by members of Congress, who either don’t know the rules to begin with, or do not appreciate their historical relevance.  The result is gridlock. Reconciliation, the budget procedure now being used to salvage health care reform, is but one example of the prostitution of the process.
2.    The lack of a public mandate.   Not since the Reagan years has an election produced a clear direction for the country that was translatable into public policy. President Obama’s progressive devotees thought he came to Washington with a powerful mandate, but they have since learned, or by now they should have learned, otherwise.  The country is fairly evenly divided.  People don’t seem to have a strikingly liberal or conservative agenda.  They yearn for what a republican form of government should be best at producing–consensus decision-making.  One reason that is not occurring is:
3.    The country has been so badly misaligned and disfigured politically through gerrymandering that too many members of Congress can simply win re-election by responding to a hard-core constituency without representing the whole.  As a result, Congress, doesn’t reflect or represent the broad middle of the American body politic—the majority.  It’s polarized. This condition discourages civility, comity, compromise and consensus, all ingredients essential to good governance.
4.    Congress lacks courageous and visionary leaders.  No elaboration needed.
5.    The decline in public confidence in Congress parallels a fundamental change in the way the mainstream and the new media have treated politics and politicians.  The media are a corruptive and corrosive influence on our political process.  The effects can be seen in public attitudes, in the unwillingness of good people to run for office, in the lack of knowledge people have about issues and political processes, and in the anger and divisiveness exhibited by the small minority of citizens who actually participate in the process.  Today, journalists—and I use the term very loosely–are more strident, polarizing and ego-driven than the politicians they criticize, yet when it comes to the dysfunction of government, media always seem to give themselves a pass.
6.    Partially as a result of items 3 and 5, Congress is crippled by partisanship and 24-hour campaigning (Schieffer does have a point, just not a critical one).  Politicians today are in many respects far different than their predecessors of  40 years ago. They are smarter, better educated, better manicured and they work harder and have stronger beliefs. But the life of politicians is less personal and more professional.  They know each other less as fellow human beings and more as expedient allies or evil adversaries. They have less respect for each others’ opinions and beliefs.  They are driven to disagree.  Their appeal to the media and to their political base is strongest when they exaggerate reality, define issues in black and white terms, and incite emotions rather than reason.  They can’t express ideas that aren’t sound bites. A growing number would rather win the battle and lose the war.  Worst of all, there are more today who actually believe their own publicity.

            The great irony is that there’s only one institution that can fix those six problems:  Congress.  But it won’t.  Do you know why Congress won’t?  Well, there are six problems…


Mike Johnson is a former journalist who served in the Ford White House and as chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel. He is currently with the OB-C Group.