A Dysfunctional Congress

I have known for a lot of years that there is a major problem in how Congress works and the dysfunction that has become the norm. Over the past 30 years Congress has become more and more partisan and each side seems to be digging in its heels in an effort to convince the public that they are right and the other side is wrong. The result is nothing gets done and all we see is rancorous debates on the floors of the House and the Senate.

So what is the root cause of this and can it be reversed? The root cause, in my opinion, began with the introduction of cameras into the House of Representatives in 1979. Seven years later the Senate finally capitulated and allowed cameras into the chamber in 1986. So how did that change the way Congress does business? Very simply, members of Congress quit talking to each other and began speaking to cameras.

I worked in the Senate between the years 1977 and 1983. At that time you never saw anyone bring a chart to the Senate floor. The reason was very simple: Nobody cared about another Senator’s chart. In those days the Senate debated the issues and members were forced to actually talk to each other. In those days legislation was much more likely to be passed with bipartisan votes. I returned to the Senate staff in 1992 for two years. Suddenly everyone had a chart and Senators were very concerned about how they looked when they went to the floor. What color tie were they wearing was a decision they had to make.

Over in the House members were going on the floor for what is called Extension of Remarks to give speeches that prior to that were just submitted for the Record. I remember a story told to me about the effect of such speeches. Bob Walker (R-PA) was famous for going on the floor in the evening and giving long speeches that created the illusion that the entire House was sitting in attendance listening to him. In those days the rules were very strict about the cameras only being pointed at the speaker. Night after night Walker would go to the floor and engage in strong oratories denouncing Democrats and their policies. The Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neil (D-MA) finally tired of this charade and ordered the cameras to pan the House and show that it was basically empty.

Jack Kemp (R-NY) told the story I mentioned above. Jack had been an All-Pro QB in the NFL while playing for the Buffalo Bills and later became the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He was also the co-author of the Kemp Roth tax bill that passed in 1981. He said he was at a meeting when a man approached him and said “are you Jack Kemp?” Kemp said he kind of puffed up with pride at being recognized and informed the gentleman that he was Congressman Kemp. The man then said “do you know Bob Walker?” Kemp realized right then that Bob Walker, a little known congressman from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was building a national identity simply by giving these speeches at night on the House floor.

The second thing that led to this polarization of members of Congress is the 24-hour news cycle. We have news stations on all day and all night and they are in competition with each other for ratings. They are looking for the breaking news and in many cases actually begin to create news. With these stations we have the talking heads that go on TV at night spewing out conservative and liberal opinions to rile up the base. Throw in talk radio on both sides and the American public is being ping ponged back and forth on what is really occurring in Congress and the people doing the talking are laughing all the way to the bank.

Now throw in social media with sites like Facebook and we only ratchet up the intensity. Both sides of the political equation create and put out things for the public to post. They take extreme positions and their goal is not to foster reasonable solutions but to continue the divide in the political arena. Most of this stuff that is being reposted by the public has been created by some twenty something sitting in an office somewhere in Washington DC who has only one goal and that is furthering his organization’s political agenda.

So what is the solution? I actually don’t know what can be done to solve the problem. Taking the cameras out of the chambers of Congress would be a good step and it might force the members to actually talk to each other instead of to cameras. I realize that is not going to happen but it would sure help. Somehow we need to get members to get away from the media and realize that a compromise might actually be a good thing. I am not holding my breath for this to happen and the blame is shared equally on both sides of the aisle.

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