“In framing a government which Is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself”</em>
Federalist, No. 51
July 29, 2006
There they go again -- in a single sentence, the founding fathers succinctly describe how to create a government that will last.
Fast forward two hundred eighteen years to observe a Congress that is faltering if not failing “to control itself” – a broken branch, first among equals on an ailing tree.
The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How To Get It Back On Track is a newly-published but long-awaited, comprehensive diagnosis of a pernicious condition that challenges the long-term health of American democracy.
Its authors, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, senior scholars at two of Washington’s best-known think tanks – Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute – came to town in 1969 from doctoral studies at the University of Michigan to serve as Congressional Fellows, and never used their return tickets.
What they have learned in their collective eight decades of careful, thoughtful, daily observations of and direct participation in the inner workings of Congress forms the structure of this very insightful look at Congress in the early years of the 21st century.
Mann and Ornstein are often described as “Congress watchers.” Well, maybe; but that would be like calling Watson and Crick “molecule watchers” or Lewis and Clark ”trail watchers.”
These are two of America’s leading political scientists, both fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, preeminent historians of the “first branch,” widely respected for having built trusting relationships with a diverse array of members in both chambers of the branch and both political parties, and known for their willingness to speak truth to power, which they do unstintingly in The Broken Branch.
They ply their scholarship at two contrasting institutions, have substantive differences on political and public policy issues, and yet have formed the kind of collaborative and collegial relationship that once characterized the Congress itself.
So, let’s begin our story right there.
“The broken branch distresses us as longtime students of American democracy who believe Congress is the linchpin of our constitutional system. But the consequences go far beyond our sensibilities, resonating in ways that damage the country as a whole.”
Hence, ‘the broken branch’ endangers the entire tree: dysfunctional Congress means dysfunctional government means dysfunctional Union.
If you are a “Congress-watcher”of some distinction and longevity, The Broken Branch may have the feel of reading back through your high school or college yearbook: you’ll recall the good times and the bad, the leaders of distinction and those who did their best to drag the institution down with them.
But Ornstein and Mann are not out to ‘name names,’ or to curry favor or disfavor with one side of the aisle or the other. Their task is to present the case for having found Congress in violation of its “contract with America,” and in some cases, its Constitutional mandate.
In their Preface, they state it plainly:
“We recognize that the American system works best when both the executive and legislative branches are strong and protective of their institutional prerogatives and competitive advantages. But Congress largely abdicated that responsibility as party and ideology trumped institution.”
And then it’s off to the races.
In just under 250 fast-paced pages, these two scholar-practitioners take their readers through the ‘theory and practice of the first branch; then to the period – 1969–1994 – in which they find “the seeds of the contemporary problem;”then a frank appraisal of the promise and then the detritus of “a decade of Republican control"; which leads to an analysis of “institutional decline.”
Ideally, The Broken Branch should be read from cover-to-cover; but if the reader has only an hour to spend with this book, it should be with the last two chapters: “The Case of Continuity” and “Conclusion.” For it is in these pages that you get the best of the authors combined skills – literary and reportorial, investigative and analytical, winding up with a thoughtful and implementable set of recommendations for mending “the broken branch.”
In “Continuity,” Mann and Ornstein take the reader through the almost unbelievable story of how Congress failed at its most basic responsibility – providing for its own continuity in the event of a national disaster. Spurred by the events of September 11th, 2001 and the ensuing anthrax attacks, Congress was forced (literally) by outsiders and some inside the chamber to draft legislation that would allow Congress to convene and govern in the event that large numbers of Members might become casualties in a terrorist attack.
Because the authors were principal players in this scenario, the look inside both chambers is clear and unfettered. When the saga had ended – badly, of course – there was passel of blame to be spread around, but if you have admired either House Speaker, Dennis Hastert or House Judiciary Committee Chairman, James Sensenbrenner, this chapter may cause you to reconsider.
“Continuity” is the problem personified, where party and ideology ran rampant over the national interest. Here’s how Ornstein summarized it in a column in Roll Call, the daily journal of doings on the Hill:
“It would have been easy for [congressional leaders] to make[e] last Wednesday’s debate open, nonpartisan and deliberative . . .
“But the amendments on continuity were different altogether: they were all legitimate and honest. To force this issue to come up under a closed rule was an insult to Democrats . . . It was utterly unnecessary. Why do it? It is more than sheer partisanship; it is sheer power. The Republican leadership did it because they could . . .
“Every day we get reminders about the real threat to the Capitol from vicious terrorists.
“Of all the issues out there, this one should be the least partisan. There was no earthly reason for the Judiciary Committee to vote on strictly partisan lines . . . It is the middle-finger approach to governing, driven by a mind-set that brought us the most rancorous and partisan atmosphere I have seen in the House in nearly 35 years.”
Strong letter to follow.
And in “Conclusion,” these two “Congress-watchers” draw their critical analysis to a close with a frontal attack on the key problems identified early in the book: the breakdown of “regular order," (which means playing by the rules;) the collapse of the deliberative process; the withering away of meaningful oversight; the neutering of conference committees; a truncated ‘work week’ (sic) that would make a Gilded Age banker weep; the unholy alliance between Members and lobbyists; the obscene proliferation of earmarks; the drift toward “anything goes” ethical behavior, and . . . let’s see . . . oh, yes . . . money and the quid pro quo shakedown practices that have joined Capitol Hill and K Street in a death spiral for democracy.
Just before outlining their prescriptions for returning the branch and the tree to full health, Mann and Ornstein make these two observations:
“The lesson for our purposes is that major change within Congress is most likely to originate outside.”
“. . . the reality is that presidential leadership, far more than any other kind, has the potential to alter the dynamic of institutional behavior and decision making in American politics and governance. A different style of leadership, one more inclusive, less partisan, and less divisive than we have seen in recent years, could make a significant difference.”
In the days following my read of The Broken Branch, I had occasion to attend two panel discussions with the authors and three of Congress’ best known personalities – former House Speakers Tom Foley and Newt Gingrich and Wisconsin’s congressional dean, David Obey. As I listened to their conversations, my mind drifted to a series of questions and to a couple books – Robert Putnam’s, Bowling Alone and Thomas Kuhn’s, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which I sensed some kinship.
In Kuhn’s seminal work, he says that “To be accepted as a paradigm, a theory must seem better than its competitors, but it need not, and in fact never does, explain all the facts with which it is presented.”
The Broken Branch is not a work that seeks to establish a paradigm, but it is in search of the truth about the disastrous drift on which the country’s most important governance institution finds itself and the remedies for its repair. Having read or listened to much of ‘its competitors,’ it’s no stretch to say that Ornstein and Mann have gone further and better than any who have preceded them.
And in Bowling Alone, Harvard University’s, Robert Putnam writes at length about the concepts of “civic engagement” and “social capital,” which have everything to do with how well a democracy functions. There is a large body of literature to explain what these terms mean and how they operate, but the two most succinct definitions may be from none other than Yogi Berra and a volunteer fire department fund-raising effort in Gold Beach, Oregon:
“If you don’t go to somebody’s funeral, they won’t come to yours.”
– or –
“Come to our breakfast, we’ll come to your fire.”
And if some of them still don't get the message, perhaps we could put it more simply: it's time for a change of “golden rules,” from:
“He who has the gold rules”
– to –
“Do unto others . . .”