Thursday, June 13, 2013

Congress is wrecked: Olympia Snowe and Tom Allen explain what's really wrong and how to fix it

Published in the Portland Phoenix

We know Congress is broken. Really broken. Health care, immigration, civil rights. But many of us on the outside don't know just how badly broken it is, and we have only vague spectator ideas of how to fix it. What we do know is what we want, which is real action from Congress toward solving the problems our country faces.
Two recent books — both political memoirs fused with some prescriptions for repair of the system — offer insider views of how awful Washington politics really is, and paint a bleak picture of the path back to anything resembling a working American political system.
Tom Allen's Dangerous Convictions: What's Really Wrong with the US Congress (Oxford University Press) and Olympia Snowe's Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress (Weinstein) are neither uplifting reads nor remotely comforting when describing the cannibalistic brutality of our elected officials.
Allen's book reads like a standard politician's treatise, focusing on his experiences and interactions over 12 years in Congress (1997-2009), and offering mainly partisan criticism of the broken system — expressed in poorly edited repetitive language and rhetoric. To read his book, you could be forgiven for thinking there's basically nothing wrong with Democrats, and everything that's not working is the fault of extremist Republicans.
Snowe, by contrast, takes a selective view of her 40 years in politics (six in the Maine Legislature, and 34 in DC: 16 in the House and 18 in the Senate), choosing her anecdotes carefully to develop precise points about what needs to be fixed — by both parties — to set our government back on a productive course.
We can mine both books for a clearer picture of what's wrong, and Snowe's work in particular for ways we can push Congress to clean itself up and get down to the people's business again.
The "do-nothing Congress" of 1947-48 passed 906 public laws; in 2011-12, Congress passed just 283, Snowe observes — as just one of a host of criticisms she heaps on Congressional leaders of both parties. Her main objection is that without legislative action, problems persist in the lives of the American people, piling up over time, and worsening without hope for repair or relief.
For example, when recalling the disastrous 2011 budget crisis that led to the so-called "budget supercommittee," and ultimately resulted in the across-the-board federal spending cuts called the "sequester," Snowe pulls no punches: "When your remedy to head off disaster is to form a committee, you know you're in trouble."
She is relentless in her criticism, lamenting that "perhaps we should have a refresher course on how a bill becomes law, because it seems that the art of legislating has been largely forgotten," and noting that when the supercommittee failed, public "confidence in government was shattered." She places the responsibility on members — and leaders — of both parties, and dissects what, procedurally, electorally, and societally, has gone wrong. Driving the nail into the coffin, Snowe hammers the point home: "The stakes were extraordinarily high, and still we couldn't act decisively."
For a wider, more philosophical, perspective on partisan disputes, some of Allen's insights are useful: "Republican arguments . . . seemed incomprehensible to Democrats, just as ours seemed misguided to them. The evidence that mattered to us made no difference to them." Observing that Democrats and Republicans have "competing views of the world and the role of government," he says "our political debates have become ideologically frozen" in a fight between individualism and community.
Citing Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, a 1985 book by five university sociologists, Allen calls these two poles the country's "first language" — individualism — and its "second language" — community. He argues that the Republicans have a public-relations advantage because they speak the "first language," while Democrats are stuck trying to communicate with Americans in their "second language."
But then he gets more pointed, terming the modern political environment as "a widening, hardening conflict between those who believe that the mission of government is to advance the common good and those who believe government is an obstacle to that end."
He makes several interesting observations that support this point, including an anecdote in which he asks new legislators why they sought elective office. Democrats all had some version of wanting to "help people," while no Republicans said anything like that, and rather explained that they had, somewhere along the way, discovered that they "like politics."
Allen gets a few good zingers in, such as: "Our representative form of government requires that elected officials reason together, not just emote in the same space."
But he seems largely un-self-aware, and only hands a few mild knocks to the Democrats, such as a passing suggestion that Dems' tendency to avoid international military intervention cost millions of lives in the Rwandan genocide.
He also appears at times departed from reality, as when he claims that our elected officials share our worries about their effectiveness: "for both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, the inability to work across the aisle is the major frustration of the job, and neither side knows how to overcome it." But he doesn't show evidence of that "frustration," instead continuing to compile a list of wrongs that suggest politicians of both parties quite enjoy a good fight more than getting the public's business done.
Allen studiously avoids placing blame on Democrats when Republicans could be the scapegoats. Exploring the debate over whether and how Medicare should cover prescription-drug costs (and, specifically, whether the government should be allowed to negotiate bulk-purchasing discounts from pharmaceutical companies), Allen notes that Republican leaders want both decreased government spending and decreased government control over skyrocketing drug costs. While his underlying point may be that the GOP has no good solution for this major health-care dilemma, Allen does not dish out even-handed criticism. He fails to note that Democrats didn't take advantage of this impossible standard by pointing it out as an obvious barricade to progress. That would have been very useful, building not rhetorical or political points but public momentum for debating the priorities involved.
It is this sort of intellectual shortcoming that weakens Allen's legitimacy as an observer, but his efforts to prescribe fixes truly come off the rails.
First, he tries to play nicely with members of the opposite party: "the ideas and worldviews on both sides are honestly held, subject to the caveat that politicians learn to blend their ideas and their political interests until they seem indistinguishable." But that of course means they're not honestly held, at least not after years on Capitol Hill.
And then he offers a basic, simplistic, and ridiculous solution: Republicans have to "reject supply-side economics and accept the scientific consensus on climate change" before they can be functional again, he writes; the party must "escape[] the grip of the libertarian worldview and agree[] that government can address problems beyond the capacity of the private sector." This, of course, would mean renouncing the very worldviews Allen just claimed were "honestly held," not to mention the foundation of the Republican Party platform.
His proposals for other fixes are equally partisan and reality-challenged: First, he suggests somehow changing the country's entire media environment into something much more thoughtful. Then he suggests politicians not appeal to voters' emotions but rather their brains. And he wants business leaders to not see the federal government as a "profit center," after which he hopes religious leaders will focus on "common humanity."
These things are indeed very nice-sounding, but as practical approaches to our very real problems, they're useless wishful thinking that suggest an ignorance of human nature and millennia of history.
Allen closes the book on his own partisan cluelessness with four principles he suggests all politicians adhere to: "respect for evidence," "tolerance of ambiguity," "caring about consequences," and "commitment to the common good."
Again, these aren't necessarily bad concepts, but he demands that public servants adhere to his definitions of them, rather than acknowledging that Republicans would say they do adhere to these principles, but have differing views on what evidence, ambiguities, consequences, and aspects of the common good should be tended to.
His only real foray attempt to unravel the congressional quagmire is on page 123: "When the congressional minority party, Republican or Democratic, complains about being denied the opportunity to amend a bill, extend the debate, or a similar process issue, the real objection is almost always about the substance."
But Snowe disagrees, and it's her book that is by far the more interesting.
She compellingly argues that it is, in fact, the process of legislation — and the centrally related issues of electoral politics and fund-raising — that is the core of the problem.
"Fair-minded legislators were reluctant to reach across the aisle lest they bring on an intra-party challenge," she writes early on, specifically targeting her own party for reproach: "The main Republican Party . . . is more interested in taking down individuals with whom they don't agree than in electing representatives who will find bipartisan legislative solutions to America's problems." (In fairness, she notes that Democrats do this too, such as to Arkansas's Blanche Lincoln and Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, who were both targeted from within the donkey party as punishment for stepping outside official turf.)
Seeking a way to "attract and support candidates of both parties who are committed to pragmatic problem-solving," she makes a brief appeal to the Founding Fathers' intent, but in a very non-partisan and extremely procedurally specific way: "It was a system derived from the belief that thoughtful, well-intentioned legislators could, and should, look for ways to bridge differences."
She gives a lengthy but fast-paced buildup explaining how today's problems emerged — and in the process offers clear examples of when and how bipartisanship worked effectively (such as on a host of women's rights issues). She offers a model for how the art of compromise could be resurrected, working with many players across the government on the details of bills and engaging with opponents and skeptics to get movement on the issues that matter.
Snowe sticks hard to practicality: "Above all else, in my view a legislator is a problem-solver," she writes, counseling against a search for "ideological purity" in favor of efforts to find "practical and reasonable solutions that can attract the bipartisan support necessary for enactment."
Her scorn for hard-line party politics is subtle, but unbridled: "Fiscal responsibility used to be the quintessential Republican belief," she writes as the opening sentence of a chapter about government spending, in which she decries the GOP's failure to seek long-term budget improvements, in favor of playing short-term political games.
Snowe powerfully urges taking action, attempting movement toward real solutions, even if that means compromise. And compromise will be needed, if we're to fix what's wrong. As she reminds the petulant children of Congress: "This is a key tenet of bipartisan consensus-building. In order to get a lot of what you want, you may have to accept a little of what you don't want."
If the basic problem is, as Snowe sees it, legislators who are acting in a theatrical performance, adhering to irrelevant political philosophies, and not working for the public at large, the fixes she proposes will be hard for those who make the rules to swallow — but all the more necessary for their reluctance. Fortunately, her thoughtful approaches ensure the balance of power is not upset by these changes, no matter which party is in the ascendant.
First up Snowe addresses the popular idea of reforming the filibuster, though unlike some other proposals, hers manages to respect that tradition as protecting the rights of the minority in the Senate. She suggests it be eliminated as an option for several types of votes, including motions to send a bill to a conference between the House and Senate — because there would be an opportunity to filibuster the bill that results from that conference. She also proposes requiring individual senators to identify themselves when threatening a filibuster, and raises the possibility of requiring actual talking filibusters (rather than just the procedural move required at present) if other reforms are not effective at unblocking the stalled progress of the Senate.
Snowe also suggests abolishing the practices of barring amendments to bills and secret holds in the Senate — both of which stifle active debate and prevent input from other members of Congress, effectively muting the voices of the millions of Americans those members represent. With those changes, bolstered by devolution of power back from usurping leadership to the experts serving on the legislative committees, and led by a bipartisan conference (much like Maine's Legislative Council), Snowe thinks the gears of the legislative process will be greased and ready to roll.
Next she pushes lawmakers to act, with an approach that is all stick and no carrot. Starting with a basic principle of "no budget, no pay," she demands members of Congress actually step up to do the work of setting priorities amid practical considerations of the realities of American life and economics. If there's no budget passed by the April 15 deadline, senators and representatives don't get paid. And there's more: all recesses would be suspended until there is a budget.
To make that deadline, of course, people will really have to work. So Snowe rips the covers off Washington's dirty little secret — something lots of political insiders know, but is largely unremarked-upon in the general public: the work week in Washington is Tuesday through Thursday, with everyone heading home to their districts for long weekends of fund-raising, at the expense of actual governing. She says it should be Monday through Friday, with proportional decreases in elected officials' pay if they work less. That would also open more opportunity for social interaction between lawmakers in Washington DC, perhaps helping them find common ground socially, if not politically.
In the end, Snowe doesn't lay the problems — or their solutions — solely on the doorsteps of the legislators. They work for us, she reminds, and so we have to take up the reins and regain control of the vehicle before it comes apart completely.
Most Americans want compromise, she says, citing recent polls indicating not only that fact, but also Americans' willingness to accept compromise that they somewhat disagree with — as long as some measurable progress comes as a result.
Observing that centrist voters used to have options in candidate pools, but now the parties aren't offering them, she calls for changes to the primary system that could allow more moderates to end up on November ballots, and urges us to reward such middle-ground politicians with donations and votes.
And she asks Americans to back organizations that support bipartisan solutions (some of which have started with good ideas but stalled because of, yes, hyperpartisanship). She mentions several specifically and includes but does not draw particular attention to her own Olympia's List, dedicated to the idea that "our public discourse should not be concerned about whether an idea is a Republican or a Democratic one, but whether it's a good idea."
Snowe does sound a note of hope: "The bottom line is that Congress retains the same potential in 2013 as at any time in its history." But it will take us all, joining hands — and minds, and wallets, and ballots — to demand our representatives do our work, not theirs.