Congress is leaving town, a cause for celebration across the land. Except that the lawmakers are going away only for the Independence Day recess; they’ll be back.
The branch of government endowed by the Founders with the most authority wins approval from only 10 percent of the public, according to a Gallup Poll in June. No major institution ranks as low.
The dysfunction on Capitol Hill is captured by one of the best books on the process in a long time, “Act of Congress,” by Robert G. Kaiser, a veteran Washington Post correspondent and editor. What makes the case more compelling is that Kaiser tells the inside story of one of the few successful legislative ventures of recent years, the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, which overhauled the financial regulatory system after the 2008 crash.
Dodd-Frank, Kaiser writes, was an anomaly: “An accomplishment produced by a catastrophe and by the fear engendered by that catastrophe.”
Even under those circumstances, it only succeeded thanks to the extraordinary skill of its two sponsors: Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who was then chairman of the House Banking Committee and had a “capacious intellect” matched by few in Congress, and Chris Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat who headed the Senate Banking Committee and wielded “formidable” political skills.
Given the magnitude of the crisis, it should have been a bipartisan bill. Some Republicans, such as Tennessee Senator Bob Corker and even a few veteran members on the two committees, were inclined to support it; their party leaders made clear they would become pariahs if they did.
Voters hate this kind of politics and say they want lawmakers to find common ground. Still, they are contemptuous of backroom deals, and that is how, unfortunately, common ground is found.
One of the best anecdotes in Kaiser’s book describes a one- on-one meeting between Frank and Camden Fine, president and chief executive officer of the Independent Community Bankers of America. Fine agreed not to oppose the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and, in exchange, Frank promised to lessen regulatory fees for smaller banks; the big banks would pay more.
It was a good deal for both sides — the kind that doesn’t happen very often these days.
The debate was often superficial. Frank Luntz, a Republican media strategist, advised critics to call the measure a “bailout.” That became the mantra; it wasn’t the reality. (In the still unpopular rescue of Wall Street in 2008, which was a bailout, the government ended up making money, but that doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker.)
Kaiser writes that what political scientists label “the politics of blame avoidance” is pervasive on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers spend more time seeking to escape responsibility for unpopular actions — especially ones that can be used against them in an attack commercial — than in claiming credit for good deeds.
The biggest problem, Kaiser complains, is that only a couple dozen members of Congress understood the complicated financial system that they were tasked to reform. Arguably, this isn’t surprising in an institution that takes up hundreds of issues, and few as complex as financial regulation. The need is for good leaders and a desire to find common ground. In this instance, the leaders were there; Dodd’s exquisite instincts saved the measure. The desire for common purpose wasn’t.
The ills that afflict Congress are many. They got much worse after Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Republican takeover of the House; then the premium was on partisan polarization. Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, political scientists and veteran watchers of Congress, assert in their book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” that the continuing right-wing bent of Republicans, practicing “policy hostage taking,” dominates Congress these days.
The way House districts are drawn — with an eye to creating safe seats for Democrats and Republicans — exacerbates this. A fair redistricting initially wouldn’t much change the partisan composition in the House. It might change the legislative environment.
The perpetual campaign and the changing news media are factors. Kaiser notes that no Connecticut newspaper covered Dodd in Washington, and the same is true of many other members. Rather than becoming policy experts, many lawmakers vie to get on cable television shows that have little interest in serious discussion.
And then there’s the root cause of many maladies: money. It dominates elections and legislative considerations. One of the thorniest issues of Dodd-Frank was how to handle derivatives trading. Agriculture Committee members wanted a piece of the action because it would help campaign contributions from the agriculture sector. And as Dodd was in the final stages of fashioning a bipartisan compromise, the Senate Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn went to seek campaign bucks in New York. They came back with $150,000 from Wall Street executives and the directive: no deal on Dodd-Frank.
The Supreme Court’s permissive decisions on special- interest money have made it very difficult to improve this system.
Still, the architects of Dodd-Frank, both now retired, said in interviews that their measure needn’t be an anomaly.
The newer members who have dominated these past several sessions of Congress pay less attention to leadership, often resulting in dysfunction, Dodd said. “Time will bring better results,” he added.
Frank said the antidote to big money — which “dominates in a vacuum” — is for voters to care and to be involved.
(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Editors: Max Berley, Stacey Shick.