Twilight of the Congressional Problem Solvers

Why can't Congress get anything done? Just look at the list of recent retirees and resigned representatives.
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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

I provided my take on the retirement of John Dingell on Monday. But a larger point I made in that piece deserves some additional reflection. The overall number of retirements from the 113th Congress so far is average or a bit below average, although, of course, the retirements are getting more attention than usual because of the remarkable careers of George Miller, Henry Waxman, Carl Levin, and Dingell.

But most, if not all, of the retirees share a common characteristic—Democrats and Republicans alike. They represent a heavily disproportionate share of those who would fit comfortably in a Problem-Solving Caucus if one existed. Problem-solving has not been anywhere on the priority list of the 112th or 113th Congresses, especially but not exclusively in the House of Representatives. And in the 111th Congress, Republicans united as a parliamentary minority, voting no on every major initiative and most minor ones. As Jerry Lewis said to Dave Obey about the economic stimulus, they followed orders from on high and did not cooperate or compromise.

There have been a few key votes recently demonstrating concern for problem-solving, including the Ryan-Murray spending compromise, the vote to end the shutdown, maybe the final vote on the farm bill after three-plus years of exacerbating the problem instead of solving it.

But mostly, we know the problem solvers not by recent votes but by their past records and their orientation. So I would include in this group Spencer Bachus, Jim Gerlach, Jon Runyan, Frank Wolf, Jo Bonner, and the now retired Jo Ann Emerson, among the House Republicans, along with a special nod to Senator Saxby Chambliss, who put himself on the line by joining and participating in the Gang of Six, trying to find a bipartisan route to debt reduction against the stiff opposition of his own party leaders and most of the GOP Senate Conference.

If these GOPers went along with all the votes to repeal Obamacare, and if many supported confrontations on the debt limit and even voted in different ways and at different times to shut down the government before they voted to reopen it, what characterizes them, I believe, is that they were not very comfortable in those stances. And they were not all that interested in fending off the radical, no-compromise forces in their party day after day after day. There are many reasons people make the very personal decision to hang it up, but that discomfort has to be high on the collective list.

At the same time, Democrats like Waxman, Miller, Dingell and Rush Holt, among others, also have their own reasons for leaving. But the sentiment Dingell expressed the other day—coming from the longest-serving member of Congress in history, and one whose love for the House is unsurpassed—that Congress is now obnoxious and has lost its identity is more widely shared. If your central purpose in serving is to solve problems for your constituents and the country as a whole, the dynamic of the past several years is unrelentingly frustrating. Now add in the fundraising craziness, with its constant pressures and the inherent corruption of the process (soon to likely be made worse with the next reckless Supreme Court decision).

The shrinkage in the ranks of problem solvers is a symptom, not a cause, of the embarrassing product of the 113th Congress, and the likelihood is that the remainder of the year will be even less productive than what we have seen so far. The combination of the permanent campaign and the rampant tribalism makes action or compromise nearly impossible. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor early in the year scheduled a pitifully small number of days in session before the November elections, now amounting to about 80, and many of those will be pro forma or abbreviated sessions. The early strategy, reflected in the majority leader’s memo to his troops, was to keep the focus on the failures of Obamacare and avoid distractions that would come with actually pushing to enact laws—which, after all, could be signed by the president and presented as evidence that things were working.

So bills will pass the House, no doubt including more attempts to eviscerate Obamacare, but very few will pass with an eye toward reaching a compromise in a House-Senate conference and getting to one of those signing ceremonies. As for the big issues, especially immigration and tax reform, which are manifestly in the Republicans’ interest, there is an additional impediment: Action on those would divide the GOP caucus at a time when the leaders are trying to unite their members.

Senate Democrats are more willing to seek some common ground on areas like infrastructure. But they have no great appetite otherwise to pass things that might lead to policy compromises, especially on the big issue of budget stability and long-term debt reduction, even if they were coupled with short-term stimulus.

Democrats are especially eager to pound Republicans on the minimum wage, an issue where substantial majorities of Democrats, independents, and—yes—Republicans support an increase. Democrats want to brand Republicans as heartless and feckless for refusing to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, a stance that is hampering economic growth because those dollars get injected directly back into the economy.

It is possible that we will see action on both of these items if the political pain for failing to act becomes too great. But if we couple these items with the broader set of interrelated issues—long-term unemployment, stagnant wages, job training, income gaps—there is actually immense promise for bipartisan action built on common ground and compromise, much of it led by my colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute. As I have written before, ideas like apprenticeship programs, relocation assistance, job-sharing incentives, increases in the Earned Income Tax Credit, and possibly subsidies for employers to hire lower-income workers could easily be blended with a slightly smaller increase in the minimum wage to find a sweet spot in this critical area. That combination would lift the 113th out of the ignominy of winning the “Do-Nothingest” record. Sadly, it is not likely to happen as we soon segue through primary season and into the high-stakes midterm campaign.

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Norm Ornstein is a correspondent for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.  More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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