Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
One party has controlled the White House, Senate and House for most of the past six years. Why have Republicans found it so hard to enact priorities such as comprehensive immigration changes, a Social Security overhaul, and even nuts-and-bolts legislation such as a budget bill?And the Democrats, as I've said, have challenged Bush how, exactly? 65 Senators voted to suspend habeas corpus. No leading Democrat (Pelosi, Biden, Clinton) has threatened to cut off funding for Iraq, or otherwise dramatically challenge the President's assertions, lies, falsehoods, or demonstrable incompetence. Congress abdicated to Bush in a way almost unknown in US history, but will Democrats take the wheel in January and jerk us back onto the true course we should be on? And then, of course, we keep voting for the incumbents who have brought us to this point....
ORNSTEIN : One answer is the small majorities that Republicans have had in both houses; it is hard to command perfect party unity in both houses for any length of time in our political system. But the Democrats had much larger margins for the first two years of Bill Clinton's presidency and also had immense difficulty making anything major happen. United government in an age of fierce partisanship and sharp ideological polarization between the parties does not work very well for very long. . . .
Congress is meant to check and balance the other branches, especially the executive. How have members' attitudes changed in recent years about Congress's institutional role?
MANN : It is striking, the extent to which the Republican majority in Congress deferred to the president in the face of one of the most aggressive and ambitious assertions of executive authority in American history. . . . They are now paying a political price for the policy consequences of their inattention. In Iraq, for example, it has meant flawed planning, poor implementation and no midcourse corrections. . . .
Few incumbents of either party face a serious risk of electoral defeat. How has this affected Congress's work? Does it make House members bolder, less inclined to blow with the political winds?
MANN : The last five congressional elections have produced fewer incumbent defeats and seats changing party hands than any comparable period in American history. Congressional districts have become safer for one party. . . . Those recruited, elected and reelected from such districts tend to reflect the ideological pole of their party rather than the center of public opinion.
Incumbency adds a layer of advantage on top of this party dominance. But rather than foster an environment in which members of Congress feel free to buck popular sentiment and wrestle seriously with the problems confronting the country, it reinforces the ideological divide between the parties. Incumbents are safe, but party majorities are not. This fosters symbolic votes, message politics and little serious legislating in Congress.
So, dramatic change in January? Sorry; I just don't see it. I don't buy the argument that "partisanship" and "ideology" have been our undoing, either. Those I consider concomitants of democratic government. If anything, we need more political parties, not less distinction between the two we have (which are almost indistinquishable as it is). Come November, the game of musical chairs will be played again. No serious effort to stop the bleeding in Iraq, no real effort to challenge Bush's all-too evident insanity and incompetence, will come from it. No Democrat will stand on the Johns Hopkins study and declare this invasion a catastrophe which must be stopped for our sake and for the sake of the Iraqi people. I don't even expect a Democrat to point out, finally, that the emperor not only has not clothes, but no soul as well. Come November, nothing really changes.