Democrats’ frustrated Congress
By Norm Ornstein
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: August 2 2007 19:51 | Last updated: August 2 2007 19:51
When the Democrats captured Congress in November 2006, after 12 long years in the minority, they were ebullient. The victory followed an uphill battle in the 435-seat House of Representatives, where the benefits of incumbency and a historical Republican money advantage made a 15-seat gain seem unachievable. Securing a Senate majority seemed even more improbable.
For Democrats, the campaign recipe was simple: repeat a three-part mantra – Iraq, the do-nothing Congress and the culture of corruption. It worked. They gained 30 seats in the House and six in the Senate, a landslide by modern standards. But seven months on, the ebullience is gone. Public approval of Congress, which rose after nearing historic lows at the mid-term elections, is now back at sewer level. A Gallup poll gave Congress 66 per cent disapproval ratings, worse than the 65 per cent disapproval for President George W. Bush in a Washington Post/ABC poll.
Republicans are still viewed harshly, but Democrats are not seen as much better. The do-nothing Congress charge is back, this time proclaimed by Republicans who show no visible discomfort at their hypocrisy after their own reign of inaction. Ditto their complaints of Democrats’ insensitivity to ethical standards, which follow the indictment on bribery charges of a prominent House Democrat, William Jefferson, and the complaint by an even more prominent Democrat, John Murtha, that ethics reform is “pure crap”.
The do-nothing Congress rap has stuck because of a bad first impression. On Iraq, the Democrats’ promise to change the Bush policy was stymied by their inability to settle on a strategy that could work, given internal disagreements and the fact that Congress has limited ability to check a commander-in-chief during wartime except through blunt instruments, such as cutting troop funds. Democratic uncertainty on Iraq gave Republicans an opening to unite – not necessarily backing an unpopular war, but squaring up to a divided and wavering opposition.
On the domestic front, a fast start by Democrats in the House, passing six measures in the first week of their rule, including an increase in the minimum wage and expanded embryonic stem cell research, was negated by a slow and indifferent response in the Senate – an endemic congressional pattern set by the different rules in the two chambers. It was exacerbated by the minority party’s ultra-aggressive use of the filibuster to block both major and minor legislation. For voters not sensitive to institutional nuance it was simply ballyhooed promises that seemed to go nowhere fast. Democrats did get stem cells through Congress – but could not overcome a presidential veto.
Mr Bush has been a problem for the Democratic Congress – ironically, more because he is weak than strong. In divided government both parties need the other to get anything done. Opportunities for action flourish when a president wants or needs a legacy and a Congress wants accomplishments. But a deeply weakened, lame duck president, whose approval ratings rival Richard Nixon at his lowest point, has had no political capital to influence Republican lawmakers to join in any deals with Democrats. Thus, on Mr Bush’s top domestic priority, immigration reform, he could command only 12 of 49 Republican senators and saw his bill go down in flames. On other issues where the president might be tempted towards bipartisanship, his need to rally his own base has led him towards veto rather than co-operation.
A Congress lasts for two years before it is judged at the polls, making the legislative process more like a marathon than a sprint. In the past month, as the August recess has neared, Democrats have picked up their pace. In a flurry, the House passed virtually all the spending bills for a fiscal year that does not begin until October, passed a major ethics and lobbying reform package, expanded health insurance for children, passed a major water projects bill, a long-awaited farm bill, an energy bill and moved towards a rewrite of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The Senate, as usual, lagged behind on several of the measures.
Looking at the numbers, the 110th Congress has far outdistanced its predecessors in days and hours in session, votes, hearings and investigations. It is moving toward a respectable record on domestic reforms. But its inability to do much to change course in Iraq, combined with the weakness of the president and a general public distemper, leave voters still far from a thumbs-up.
The writer is co-author, with Thomas Mann, of The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get it Back on Track