Damaged Reps

President Barack Obama meets with (from left) Representative Barney Frank and Senators Dick Durbin and Chris Dodd in the White House Green Room, June 17, 2009.
President Barack Obama meets with (from left) Representative Barney Frank and Senators Dick Durbin and Chris Dodd in the White House Green Room, June 17, 2009.

It’s hard to know what to make of the 111th Congress. On one hand, it was a Congress of immense productivity. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, for example, was an $840 billion Goliath designed to stem the Great Recession and provide the floor for recovery from the devastating economic crash of 2008. And while the 2009 stimulus law doesn’t have the best reputation (large pluralities still deride it as “wasteful,” despite the utter absence of waste), it stands as a huge accomplishment—an incredible collection of programs and initiatives that would turn any presidency into a success if each were considered separately.

To wit, in passing the stimulus, Congress and the White House issued new tax cuts, expanded working-class tax credits, bailed out the automobile industry, jump-started the green-energy industry, revitalized American manufacturing, repaired tens of billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure, and implemented the largest reform of K–12 education since No Child Left Behind.

And all of this, it should be noted, was finished by the second month of the 111th Congress’s first session.

What’s more, lawmakers working in the early months of President Barack Obama’s first term were just getting started. Over the next two years, the same Congress would provide a legal remedy for payment discrimination (in the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act), create tax deductions for employers to hire new workers (the Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act), lay the groundwork for universal health insurance (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act), institute the toughest regulations of Wall Street since the 1930s (the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act), reduce the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity (the Fair Sentencing Act), pass another $200 billion in stimulus (the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act), ratify a nuclear-arms treaty, and repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

None of this was perfect, but in the main, it reads like a fairly extensive wish list for liberals.

On the other hand—and this is a big “other”—the 111th Congress was also the most gridlocked Congress in history (or at least until the 112th). Urged on by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican lawmakers realized they could gum up the works on Capitol Hill by using the filibuster—a parliamentary procedure—to extend debate indefinitely. There’s no precise way to measure the exact number of filibusters, but we do know how often the majority called for cloture, or the sixty votes necessary to break a filibuster. According to National Journal, 132 cloture votes were filed in the 111th Congress, more than in any previous Congress.

If there’s an animating force behind Act of Congress—the newest book from longtime Washington Post reporter and editor Robert G. Kaiser—it’s an attempt to explain this contradiction. How can the most productive Congress since the 1970s also stand as the most dysfunctional in more than a century? His case study is the successful two-year effort to pass financial reform and deal with the regulatory aftermath of the economic crisis.

As befits a congressional reporter, Kaiser excels when he’s presenting personalities. By and large, the book is focused on the two men who shepherded the financial-reform measure through their respective chambers: Connecticut senator Chris Dodd and Massachusetts representative Barney Frank. Kaiser explains how both came into politics: Dodd as a second-generation senator, continuing his father’s legacy; and Frank as a political wunderkind, leaving graduate school to pursue a career in Massachusetts politics, and beginning in 1981—after a tough election—in the House of Representatives.

Kaiser takes pains to emphasize how financial reform would have died without their work. “The fact that Dodd and Frank held the key chairmanships that made them responsible for the regulatory reform effort,” he writes, “was another fortuitous coincidence. Both men demonstrated the skills of resourceful and effective leaders in a Congress where true leadership is rare.”

As tempting as it is to be cynical about such a verdict (in another, less laudable tradition of DC journalism, Kaiser had plenty of access to Dodd and Frank, who have both since retired), it’s hard to contradict Kaiser’s judgment. Frank is a blazingly intelligent lawmaker who had a firm grasp on policy and wide support from a Democratic leadership eager to pass legislation. Dodd is a senator in the classic sense—a man who enjoys good company and prides himself on his ability to craft a deal. And they both had the support of staffs who were ready and able to take the lead on building this legislation.

And if you need to consult a control group to test Kaiser’s judgment, look no further than the Republican counterparts to Dodd and Frank—Congressman Spencer Bachus and Senator Richard Shelby, both from Alabama. It’s not that they were insincere or incapable, but for reasons political and ideological, they were unable to meet the moment. Indeed, there comes a point when Kaiser all but laments that Congress doesn’t have more members like Dodd and Frank. “When dominated by partisan politics,” writes Kaiser, “the legislative process rarely produces policy consensus or even a clear statement of policy alternatives. If defeating your political enemy is what is most important, then writing effective, intelligent legislation will inevitably decline in importance.” In his estimation, Dodd and Frank were men who saw lawmaking as the most important part of their jobs, and that—ultimately—is why financial reform happened.

It’s not hard to guess what the substance of Kaiser’s institutional critique of Congress will be. As he puts it in the book’s concluding chapter, “Legislating is no longer the principal preoccupation of our legislators—politics is. Most commonly, it is politics by sound bite.”

There’s a lot of truth to this. In February, Senate Republicans broke decades of tradition and precedent to filibuster former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel—President Obama’s nominee to lead the Department of Defense. Was Hagel unqualified? Far from it—he worked tirelessly on defense issues during his twelve years in the Senate. But for the right wing of the GOP, the former Republican lawmaker’s willingness to work with Obama was enough to justify a filibuster and stop up the gears of government yet again.

At the same time, cries for greater bipartisan comity in Washington have grown banal. Polarization has been the trend in American politics for the last several decades, beginning with the civil rights movement and the political realignment sparked by the end of Jim Crow. And as Kaiser notes, this process has been asymmetrical—Republicans are far more conservative than Democrats are liberal.

This has, and will have, profound implications for American politics. The institutions of the Founding Fathers aren’t equipped for hyperpolarization and wide partisanship. Yes, policy making is a positive-sum enterprise—meaning all the parties involved can get something they like—but politics isn’t. And a system that empowers legislative minorities to block the majority’s will can’t work when progress imperils said minority. If gridlock is a problem, we have to change the rules of the game.

But Kaiser doesn’t want to go there, and his argument suffers as a result. Instead, he falls back on old Washington clichés. If lawmakers could only spend more time together, if parties could only empower moderates, if politicians could only pay more than lip service to bipartisanship—then, he suggests, we could finally fix Congress.

But that’s not true. Even if we had nicer lawmakers, even if there were less money in politics, even if we had perfectly distributed electoral districts with minimal gerrymandering (which, it should be said, is a moot consideration for the Senate), we’d still have to deal with the core cause of ideological polarization: We live in a divided country, where many different people hold many conflicting views about how to move forward.

In a hypothetical world where Republican Party politics aren’t an issue, odds are best that Richard Shelby wouldn’t have been able to cooperate much with Chris Dodd. Alabama is just much more conservative than Connecticut, and Shelby’s voters want far different things than Dodd’s do. And indeed, as last year’s election aptly demonstrated, we’re moving toward a political geography in which most like-minded people are clustered together, so that even within a single state, there is a wide ideological gap between the people who represent cities and the people who don’t.

Like Kaiser, I want a government that works. But changing the roster of players—or tinkering at the margins—won’t get us there. Vanity and venality have always been a part of American politics, as have laziness, partisanship, and everything else that voters hate about Congress.

If we want a more responsive Congress, then we need rules and norms that reflect our changing political environment. We don’t have to become a parliamentary democracy, but more majoritarian institutions—meaning, in part, a weaker (or nonexistent) filibuster, more deference to executive-branch nominees, fewer veto points and senatorial prerogatives—are what we need to make Washington work again.

Or, if that’s too ambitious, it’s what we need to make Washington a little less embarrassing, and a little more equipped to handle the problems of our democracy.

Jamelle Bouie is a Washington, DC–based staff writer at the American Prospect and a Knobler Fellow at the Nation Institute. His work has appeared in The Nation, The Atlantic, the Washington Independent, and the Washington Post.