BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON
Pollsters, camera-ready prognosticators, sages and soothsayers, for weeks have been predicting a Republican “wave” election today.
Two eminent Republican pollsters, Glen Bolger and Neil Newhouse had this to say about it in a Washington Post op-ed: “Such a victory gives the Republican Party a significant opportunity to recast itself in the eyes of the voters. But let’s be clear: Winning on Tuesday, will not necessarily portend success in 2016.”
It is not surprising that Bolger and Newhouse couldn’t wait for one election to be over before turning to the next. That is what they do.
But maybe the rest of us should pause long enough to remember why elections are held in the first place: to pick those individuals who the voting public thinks can best govern us between elections. That is what is supposed to happen between elections: governing, keeping partisan political interests in their proper perspective while the nation’s problems are dealt with.
But when politicians and the media (Politico Magazine’s cover on this election day is all about how to beat Hillary Clinton in 2016) leap from one campaign cycle to another nanoseconds after the polls close, there’s isn’t much time left for governing. More importantly, there is no environment in which governing can take place.
Political campaigns are no longer the means by which we prepare for governance. Governance is an empty platform on which candidates prepare for more campaigns. This intrusion of campaign politics into public policy making, this constant campaign creep, ultimately leads to the total consumption of one by the other.
Bolger and Newhouse do point out, 14 paragraphs down, in point number five out of six, I might add, that a Republican victory “…means we get to pass legislation.” Even their version of legislating isn’t a governing strategy, it is a political one: “McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner should seek to send Obama a blend of bills—some he can sign and others he can veto to keep his coalition happy.”
It makes simple, irrefutable sense that the American people are fed up with Congress because Congress doesn’t govern between elections. The same can be said for the President. It isn’t rocket science. It isn’t even grade school math. Congress and the President enacted only 145 laws in the current Congress, half the number of the previous Congress, which was half the number of the previous Congress. In the last Congress of the Reagan Administration, 761 bills were written into law. Congress has passed only one budget in five years and it hasn’t passed the 12 individual appropriation bills needed to run the government since 1996. There are now more than $300 billion in federal programs that haven’t been reauthorized.
Congress and the President have been paralyzed by partisanship, exacerbating an institutional dysfunction, and the public has paid a high price. The government has not only failed to perform basic functions, pressing problems have been allowed to grow into crises. Among the more critical are economic weakness and uncertainty, energy dependence, immigration, tax reform, a crumbling transportation infrastructure, threats to cyber security, international terrorism, trade, environmental degradation, annual deficits and the national debt, excessive regulation, and the quality and inequality of education. Did I mention Vladimir Putin?
Polarization is a chronic, systemic problem. One recent study noted by New York Times columnist David Brooks found that Americans are far more bigoted politically than they are racially. More people are inclined to discriminate against someone not of their political affiliation as opposed to someone not of their race.
Another survey Brooks cited even found a stark increase in the number of parents who would be concerned with their child marrying into a family of the opposite party. We’ve all seen the increase in people getting their news only from sources with which they are politically comfortable.
Polarization in society is reflected in our political leaders and the media, or what is probably more accurate, social polarization is a reflection of what people hear from their political leaders and see on their television set every night or watch on their tablets and cell phones.
So instead of coming together, we remain apart, caught in a vicious cycle of constant campaigns, unable to govern or be governed.
Kathleen Parker wrote last week: “It would be nice, should Republicans indeed take charge, if they would skip the hubris course and buckle down with their Democratic counterparts to make wise, not goal-prancing, decisions.”
First though, Congress, as my friend Billy Pitts, has written, must “heal thyself.” Congress must fix the processes and procedures that make it difficult to govern. They must rebuild the relationships between Republicans and Democrats, House members and Senators, politicians and the people, all critical ingredients to Republican governance that for two centuries have served as the basis for landmark legislation and sound public policy; that once kept the balance of power fluid enough that no leader, no caucus of members, no small band of angry anarchists or stubborn socialists, could tip that balance and prevent responsible governance.
This has to happen before the public can hope to see something more than politicized, marginal solutions to immigration, tax reform and budget deficits.
You can’t build a barn in a tornado, as the late Speaker Sam Rayburn would have agreed. You can’t solve problems in a hostile atmosphere that discourages legislators from legislating, makes it difficult for leaders to lead and makes it impossible for Republicans to work with Democrats. And, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican or whether you want to shrink the government or expand it, you can’t do it unless you legislate; you can’t do it unless you compromise; you can’t do it unless you govern.
There are dozens of highly reputable and experienced individuals and organizations in Washington that have done a lot of work and spent a lot of time preaching the virtues of and promoting the value of process and procedural reforms.
A group with which I’ve been working, through the Congressional Institute, has proposed more than 30 major changes, many in concert with the Bipartisan Policy Center and other organizations.
They include mandatory bipartisan and bicameral working sessions, and regular meetings of the Congressional leadership and the President; education and training programs for members and staff; congressional action on unauthorized programs with stricter congressional oversight; a 5-day work week; two-year budgeting; further restrictions on making programmatic changes in appropriation bills; more opportunities for members to amend legislation; more open debates in the House and Senate, filibuster reform; and restoration of regular order in floor procedures and House and Senate conferences.
With one campaign ending and another already begun, Members of Congress, young and old, rookies and veterans, Republicans and Democrats should all take a deep breath in the coming weeks and figure out what they can contribute to good governance. It can be; it should be, after all, good politics, too.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.