What's Wrong With Congress, And How To Fix It

Guests

Wendy Schiller, professor, Brown University
John Tanner, former Democratic congressman, Tennessee
Jim Kolbe, former Republican congressman, Arizona

The Senate is back at work after cancelling its traditional week-long recess for the July 4th holiday. They hope to reach a deal on government spending and the debt ceiling. Many Americans are frustrated at the lack of progress, and blame both parties for politics as usual in Washington.

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BRIAN NAYLOR, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Brian Naylor in Washington. Neal Conan is away. The Senate is back at work today, although it wasn't supposed to be. Senators were planning to take their traditional July 4th recess this week, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid canceled the traditional getaway in the hope of reaching a deal on raising the national debt ceiling.

For many Washington watchers, the latest logjam is nothing new. It's just the latest point of contention for a Congress that has seemed increasingly paralyzed by gridlock and partisan differences.

Senate Democratic leaders say they won't take up a budget until an agreement is reached on the deficit, while Republicans have blocked legislation supporting U.S. action in Libya and a hearing on free trade and all this while other important legislation languages - languishes, that is - and congressional appointments go unfilled.

Many Americans are frustrated at what they see as partisan bickering and gamesmanship. So tell us: What's your solution? What would help Congress work better? The number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

With me now to talk about how we got here is Wendy Schiller. She's a political science professor and Congress expert at Brown University, and she joins me from a studio there in Providence, Rhode Island. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

WENDY SCHILLER: Good afternoon, Brian.

NAYLOR: So it's a frequently heard refrain around the country of late, what's wrong with Congress? This session seems to be shaping up as one of the least productive in years. How does this session stack up with previous ones, would you say?

SCHILLER: Well, it appears that they're not doing enough and I think partly because when you had President Obama come in with a Democratic Congress, that was unified government, there was a lot of things to do, the country was in crisis on a number of dimensions, and whenever one party captures all the branches of government, there's a lot of energy and a lot of things people want to do, particularly the Democratic Party.

They believe that the federal government should be doing things. So it was expected to see a lot of legislation in the first six or nine or 10 months of that session. It's not that unexpected to see that the Republicans have pulled back, that this is a party that has a philosophy of less government, limited government. So it's not shocking that they didn't produce a slew of bills. Plus, the Republicans control the House but not the Senate and not the White House. So I'm not as surprised.

And second, we don't really in political science compare the sessions until they've actually completed, and we know that a lot of the work gets done in the next four months of the session rather than the previous six or seven months because of deadlines, like the debt ceiling and the budget.

And recall, the Democrats did not pass a budget resolution last year before the 2010 elections when they controlled the chamber. So it's becoming somewhat more normal not to even have a budget, which should be of great concern, I think, to voters because the budget is one of the big blueprints for accountability for federal spending.

So I think the lack of a budget is the first place as you look at Congress and say it's broken.

NAYLOR: Right, and the budget, or the budget tied in with talks to raise the debt ceiling, seems to be an area where the two sides have really dug in their heels. Republicans say they won't allow for any kind of tax increase or even a revenue increase. The majority leader, Eric Cantor, and the Senator Jon Kyl walked out of the budget talks last month. It seems as though really nothing is going to get solved, I guess, until that gets solved.

SCHILLER: Well, that's right, and you can see the perspective, right. I mean, people have long memories in politics. I mean, look what happened to George Bush, I call him George Bush Sr., when he raised taxes as a result of a budget summit that he had to basically do to get the deficit under control, and that cost him, some people say, the presidency, certainly support in his own party.

So there is a great peril to the Republicans to go back on their word of sort of the party that says no new taxes. But more importantly, you can see the rationale, when the deficit is so enormous, and our debt is so enormous, and American voters are saying you're spending all this money, we have all this debt, but we don't see any results.

We don't see the economy getting better. We don't see jobs staying here or new job growth. So where is the money going? And until, I think, both parties can explain where the money's going, it's harder to justify taking more of it from the voters.

On the other hand, if you're a practical and responsible elected official, you understand that the debt ceiling is an extremely serious signal not only internally but externally to the economic world market. So you can't have the government even, you know, theoretically default.

I mean, today they're speaking about the fact that the president can just spend money, and he doesn't actually even need Congress. But in fact, we need to show the world that we're an economically and politically stable government that can get a hold of our own finances.

So I think even though the Republicans are so wedded to the no new taxes, they have to face the reality that we have such an enormous debt from both the presidency of George Bush and also the Obama policies. Something has to be done. It has to be done now. And if you don't do anything now, and you walk away from the table, I think that suggests that you simply cannot govern, and I think that's a political message the Republicans ultimately do not want to send to the voters.

NAYLOR: And while this is going on, there's a lot that's not going on. For instance, the FAA reauthorization bill, they want to change the way that the nation's airlines are trafficked through the air, using GPS technology rather than radar or World War II technology. And there are other bills that Congress I think probably - and many in Congress would like to see taken up that just aren't going anywhere - patent reform - until this is worked out. I would imagine that this also gives them - a lot of voters, kind of, you know, well, what's going on here?

SCHILLER: Well, and part of it is the consolidation of power in party leaders. We know that Congress has become much more divided along partisan lines in the last decade - very entrenched, more entrenched than in many decades past, and people are simply too afraid to cross the aisle to work together to do things that are going to benefit all Americans.

So you see that by running on your party label and then giving your party leaders all this power to shape the agenda, you lose individual power to set the agenda. So even if you're a committee chair in the House, and you want to bring up the FAA bill, or in the Senate you want to offer it as an amendment on the floor, the leadership has taken away a lot of those individual powers even in the Senate to try to shape the agenda, to try to influence the agenda, get your bills to the floor so they can be voted on.

And this is the price of polarization. This is the price of having parties define the message and define the agenda. And you need a few members of Congress who are willing, who are willing to take the leap, frankly, and go against their leaders and say listen, you've got to open up the process more. We have to get bills to the floor. We have to consider them.

And I think until you have more of that groundswell among the rank and file of the Senate and the House, it's going to be very tough to shake the way that Washington has become so entrenched, including Congress.

NAYLOR: And I think, you know, if we look at the House, for instance, you know, by all accounts Speaker John Boehner is a veteran of the House. He's kind of a guy who likes to make deals. He likes to find some middle ground, yet at the same time he's dealing with this huge class of freshman, many of them elected with Tea Party support, who kind of came here to not do big things, to rein in the powers of Congress, to rein in the spending, certainly. How much is the leadership hamstrung by the rank and file?

SCHILLER: Well, that's the big, that's the big $64,000 question. I think Boehner's actually handled this fairly well so far, given the distribution of the Tea Partiers versus you might say the regular Republicans.

What we don't know as outside observers is how many of these Tea Partiers really want to get re-elected. We assume everybody who comes to Congress wants to stay in Congress, they want to stay here, they want to get re-elected, and we don't know.

And the more people who care about re-election in a year from now, the better Boehner's chances of rallying them around and getting them to compromise slightly, with the assumption that in their district, there's an active Tea Party minority, but if they're in a redistricted district that is drawn to preserve Republicans, for example, that they can craft a majority out of a lot of different voters.

So the trick for Boehner is to identify those who may want to stay in Washington more than two years, who are willing to become more nuanced in their platforms and go back to the voters and explain what was necessary to do. And it seems to me he's gotten a few of those, but it's not a working or governing coalition yet.

And he is a pro. If anybody can do it in his party, I think he can do it. The question is: Do voters themselves really want the Congress to do a lot now? And that's a big question. I mean, immigration, for example, is a huge issue, too, that's gone unaddressed, but we don't know if a majority of Americans really want to see a slew of bills come out of Congress.

Look, the message of 2010 was a rejection, in some ways, of the Obama health care bill, and although that has not successfully been repealed, that's the interpretation of that election. So the question is you want to do some things, but you don't want to do so much that you alienate the voters again. And most of the time when the federal government does something, it costs money.

So in some senses, saying they can't really get passed any sort of legislative agendas that they want to enact until they get the budget straight. And by the way, the budget is of course comprised of three different major budget bills. So it's not even one bill that they have to do, they still have to pass the budget resolution, then a budget reconciliation bill, most likely, to enact some of these changes that they'll agree to for the debt ceiling bill.

So it's much more complicated than just one single budget, and I think voters will be very shocked. Once the debt ceiling agreement is reached, they're going to be shocked to realize that there are other bills that must be passed to enact it. And that's going to take a lot of bickering and a lot of trading and a lot of time and resources.

So I think Congress in some ways may, for the 21st century, may not be structured as well as it could be. We like to think the founders were really smart and knew what they were doing, but it may be that in fact the way that we have things set up is just simply not equipped to deal with some of the problems that we're dealing with in this day and age.

NAYLOR: We're speaking with Wendy Schiller - excuse me - a professor of political science at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, about what's wrong with Congress. And we're interested in hearing what you think is wrong with Congress. Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Let's take a call from Sam, who's on the line from Beaufort, in North Carolina. Sam, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SAM (Caller): Hi. This may be oversimplifying, but I really truly do believe this, that you follow the money and that the American electorate is being sold cheaply by Congress to people who are - well, on K Street and so on. I would propose doubling or tripling whatever their salaries, making them feel comfortable. It would not take - we could - I mean, what's spent on them is nothing compared to how it leverages the decisions made.

And I think the money confuses the congressmen from taking correct stances, into taking biased commercial private kind of viewed interests, actions.

NAYLOR: All right, Sam, thanks very much. Wendy Schiller, what do you think of that idea? Does there need to be - is a money issue? Is it a campaign finance issue?

SCHILLER: I think it's a combination of both. And I think that, you know, this debate about how much you should pay the members of Congress has been going on since the first Congress, actually, and so, you know, the argument of how much you should pay your legislators, and if you pay them more, will you get a better product.

And I think in some ways having legislators meet with lobbyists that are really making a lot of money, that's a frustrating thing for them. So paying them more might make them - their job - they might like their job more. But unfortunately, I'm not sure that's going to diminish the power of money in campaigns.

NAYLOR: We're speaking about what's wrong with Congress and with Wendy Schiller from Brown University and with you. Give us a call at 800-989-8255. I'm Brian Naylor. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NAYLOR: We're talking about what's wrong with Congress and how to fix it on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Brian Naylor. And joining us now is former Congressman John Tanner. He served as a Democratic representative from Tennessee from 1989 until retiring this year. He also sits on the board for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, and he joins me now from phone by Parrish Landing, Tennessee. Congressman Tanner, thanks for taking time to be with us today.

JOHN TANNER: Thank you, Brian, good afternoon.

NAYLOR: Good afternoon to you, sir. So tell me, what do you - what's your thoughts? What can be done to turn things around in Congress?

TANNER: Well, one of the first things I think that needs to be done is to revisit how members are elected. There was a case in 1962 in the Supreme Court called Baker vs. Carr, which actually came from this district in Tennessee. And in that case, really the court for the first time in modern political history, the Supreme Court, held that apportionment of seats based on population was a justiciable issue involving due process.

And from that, what was called in those days one man one vote, and what happened was they turned it over to the political process - excuse me - primarily the state legislatures, and over time it has evolved into a situation where leaders of the political parties across the country say this is a good deal, I'll give you all of your guys, you give me all of mine, and we'll both be happy.

So today, 40, what, nine, 38, 48, 49 years later, there are only 91 seats left in the 435-seat House that are even within the hypothetical margin of error of a 50-50 voting pattern, which means that members are being elected, 300-plus, in party primaries, where they are understandably responsible to what's called the base voters, either Democrat or Republican, and they come there basically, in my view, politically crippled from going into what we might term the sensible center and working out problems that will benefit our country.

NAYLOR: All right, Mr. Tanner, let me just stop you right there for a minute because I want to take - bring in one of our callers, Robert, who is on the line from Kelso, Washington. Robert, you have a proposed solution to this problem of not enough lawmakers willing to compromise, willing to work in the middle.

ROBERT: That is correct, and like I was saying is that part of the problem is because of the polarization that's going on, it makes it really difficult, and my kind of - my idea, it's, you know, going to be considered radical, I know, but would be to make some of the seats, you know - first, I guess, increase the amount of seats that are in the House and then maybe take those seats and have it be kind of like how you do jury duty, have it be a lottery where everyday regular people get the option of maybe taking a seat that wouldn't normally even be considered running for a seat. But it just becomes, you know, a part of the process of our government, where it's a - you know, almost like a jury.

NAYLOR: So - and would these be term-limited? Would they have only a certain amount of time they'd be able to serve in these seats?

ROBERT: That is correct. It would be a, you know, term-limit system where essentially, you know, every two years, how it is right now, you have a, you know, fresh, new body of people coming in there. It wouldn't be held by, you know, by, you know, having to campaign and whatnot.

NAYLOR: Okay, well, thank you, Robert. That's an interesting idea. I want to ask Mr. Tanner: What do you think of that idea? Is that something that would be workable politically? Would it be constitutional, do you think?

TANNER: Well, I doubt the constitutionality, but beyond that, there needs to be some institutional memory, and there need to be people there who have served more than two years and who - this is a very, very complex world. And if it were just domestic politics, that might be of some use.

But as you know, we live in an increasingly globalized world, and there has to be some institutional memory, it seems to me, in the Congress to deal with very complex issues that come before Congress with regard to international relationships.

But may I finish - with the gerrymandering that goes on now - we're going to see another round of it, in fact it's already in progress - what we are seeing is a distribution of seats in Congress based on no public purpose, no good government purpose. It is strictly done to advantage one political party or another in a given locale.

And what happens is that the members then come there, as I said, understandably - I'm not sanctimonious about this - understandably responsive to the people who elected them, and in this case it is the base voters on the left and the right.

And if they go into what I would call the sensible center to try to work something out, they are punished by the base for being ideologically impure or not standing on principle or some such thing that really inhibits a member from the positions. You take the hard and fast positions that people have to take when they know that my way or the highway is going to result in gridlock.

NAYLOR: Gotcha.

TANNER: And inability of Congress to master or to help solve the massive problems facing this country, whether it be entitlement reform or tax reform.

NAYLOR: All right, Mr. Tanner. Well, thanks very much for joining us today. John Tanner is a former Democratic congressman from Tennessee who retired this year after 12 years in the House and joined us by phone from Parrish Landing, Tennessee. Mr. Tanner, thanks again for being with us today.

And now we'd like to turn to another former congressman, Jim Kolbe of Arizona. He served in the House from 1985 to 2007, a Republican, and he's now on the phone from Florida. Congressman, thank you for your time today.

JIM KOLBE: Thank you, it's good to be with you.

NAYLOR: It's always good to talk to you, sir. You served more than two decades in Congress. Did you see a transformation in the mood on Capitol Hill in that time?

KOLBE: Yes, I think there clearly was a change. It certainly became more divisive. It became less civil. There was less socialization between members during that time. I think a lot of factors go into that. But by and large what you saw was members becoming more and more operators not really working together in the fashion, the legislative fashion, I think our forefathers thought they should be, which requires that you have constant interaction with each other.

NAYLOR: And do you agree with Mr. Tanner that this is, at least in part and maybe in large part, caused by the redistricting process, and more and more members are in so-called safe districts now, and they really don't have to look for the middle, they can play to their base, whether it's liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans?

KOLBE: Yes, I do. I think, in fact, if you go back within Mr. Tanner's own state, that the original Baker vs. Carr decision was made in the 1960s that set us down this track towards redistricting of congressional and other political districts on a basis that was different. I'm not saying it's not more fair to have - the population would be equal, but I think that the requirement has become an obsession with legislative members and also the courts' decisions that they have to give as much weight as possible to minorities within the states has resulted in what I call a ghettoization of districts so that you have safe Democratic or minority districts, you have safe Republican suburban districts, and very few competitive districts in the middle.

I think that is at the core - that's the core of the problem that we have, not, as many have suggested, the amount of money that is in these political campaigns.

NAYLOR: Now, I want to turn to an email we received from Andrew, who writes: In regards to your current discussion, why don't we put term limits on the Senate and Congress? I feel there are too many older politicians in Washington that are stuck in their ways and aren't willing to budge and think outside the box. Do you think term limits, Mr. Kolbe, would do anything to end this gridlock in Washington now?

KOLBE: No, absolutely not. I mean, you have term limits now in California for how many years now, for two decades, and look at what's happened there. You have absolutely nothing. And you have term limits in Arizona and it's - no, that is not the answer. Term limits means that the staff and the lobbyists end up controlling the process, because members are playing a game of musical chairs, and as soon as they get there, they're looking for the next seat that they can hold, whether it's in the Senate or some statewide office.

You need to have some institutional experience among members, and that can only come by being - by electing members. I've always argued that there are term limits. My term limit in Congress was two years.

NAYLOR: Right.

KOLBE: I had to face the voters every two years, and they had to decide whether they wanted to hire me again.

NAYLOR: Mm-hmm. Another of our listeners, Larry, writes that we should make voting mandatory. The radical minority of whichever party is electing more and more radical members of Congress and beholden to them only, and that both parties do this. Do you see that that - and I guess what he's kind of saying is that there's a - there's, right now, the base of both sides is pretty motivated, but not enough other voters are, and that voters should be - or people should be made to vote.

KOLBE: Well, I don't think mandatory voting is the answer. I don't feel strongly about that as I do about the idea that that - about term limits. But I just don't think that mandatory voting is going to solve the problem. You've got to motivate people to want - get out and vote. And you see elections where massive numbers of people do get out and vote. So they've got to be inspired to want to vote to believe that there can be a change, something can make a difference.

If you leave everything else the same and just add mandatory voting, that doesn't fix the problem at all. You just have people who go to the polls who know nothing about what they're voting for.

NAYLOR: I want to bring in Wendy Schiller, who's been standing by or sitting by at Brown University in Providence. Professor Schiller, what are your thoughts on some of these solutions, mandatory voting or whether we need a - term limits. Any of those likely practicable or constitutional?

SCHILLER: Well, I think term limits - history can be pretty instructive, here. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, we had state legislatures that selected senators, and we had all sorts of corruption and problems and deadlocks with those elections. And one of the big reasons was 67 percent of state legislators only served one term. They were there for two years - or if they were senators, they were there for four years - and they left. And they had no stake in the system. And senators are elected every six years.

So nobody was there to hold the senator accountable, and you had a lot of senators winning the election pretty easily. So the problem with turnover is, I think, I totally agree, is you lose institutional memory. You also lose accountability. I do think expanding the size of the House is not a bad idea at all. We should think about it. It's not a constitutional amendment that limited the size of the House. It's a public law passed by Congress in 1929. So I don't think that that's out of the question.

Other major countries with fewer people, they do have bigger legislatures. So I think if you raise the number of people, here's the unintended consequence: You might get better representation because you get fewer constituents per member of Congress. But the bigger the chamber, the more likely you need parties to organize the chamber...

NAYLOR: All right.

SCHILLER: ...so parties can end up being stronger. Lastly, I think that mandatory voting, to me, just seems, you know, Americans don't even like to be told to wear a seatbelt, and we know that it saves their life. I think it's just sort of not American to mandate that you vote. However, I disagree that there wouldn't be consequences. I think it's true people would go to the polls, and they would even be more subject to some of the information that we get from the campaign ads that we see, and cable television that we chose to listen to, whether it's the right or the left.

So it's unclear you get a better educated voting population, but you would get a more empowered voting population. You would get people feeling a little bit less frustrated with their elected officials if everybody went out to vote, everybody shares in the responsibility of the government that they produced. So it's an actual experiment I don't think we'll ever have it in the United States, but I do think there'd be some benefits to it, as well as potentially some costs.

NAYLOR: Wendy Schiller is a professor of political science at Brown University in Providence, and we're talking about what's wrong with Congress on TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And I'd like to bring in Rob - I'm sorry - Richard from Wichita, Kansas. Richard, what's your thoughts on what could fix Congress?

RICHARD: I think we need change the - the legal framework in which they do the budget. I think, for one thing, we should call the Republicans' bluff. They're always talking about how they want a balanced budget amendment, but they never propose a balanced budget. This goes back to Reagan's days. I think we should say, yes, there should be a balanced budget amendment, and it should have teeth, saying that if the Congress doesn't pass a balanced budget on schedule, then all of the leadership of the House and the Senate and both parties must step down and be replaced for a full year and stripped of their powers and retain institutional memory on the Appropriations of the Finance Committees. Those members must be required to sit, but be non-voting members from that point forward for the rest of the year.

NAYLOR: OK. Well, let me - I just want to toss this to Mr. Kolbe, who was in Congress, and I think maybe voted on a balanced budget amendment. And I know you were also on the Appropriations Committee. Did you vote on a balanced budget amendment?

KOLBE: I did, and I voted in favor of sending it to the State Senate. I've never been a real strong advocate. I'm not at all sure that that's going to fix the problem. I think what I have found in Congress as a member of the Appropriations Committee is that the rules are flexible enough that Congress can find ways to get around almost anything if they really want to do it. And so I think the idea that was just suggested, of everybody having to step down, they'll figure out some way to adopt something that's - there needs to be legal criteria of being a balanced budget, but doesn't really do it. So it takes the will of people and it takes the will of the voters to say enough is enough. And I think that's kind of where we're at right now.

NAYLOR: OK. Wendy, I just want to give you the last word: balanced budget amendment, redistricting, term limits. Do you see - what's going to fix this problem?

SCHILLER: I think it's a combination. I think we do have to find a way to get more voters involved and make them feel more empowered, more educated, more informed about what their member of Congress is doing. And I think any way that we can facilitate more openness, more transparency, better explanation of what Congress is doing, I think, will be very helpful. Redistricting is tough, because people like to live where they like to live. And sometimes, when you want to join people who are like you, you share their political views, too.

So you can draw the lines in a lot of different ways, but you can't change where people want to live. And if they want to live with each other, they're going to share political views. So that will consolidate voters in areas, no matter what the government does. I do think the idea of saying that Congress should work better, I think that puts more pressure on members of Congress to deliver. So I'm hoping that that will produce an effect. But we do have a system that was built a long time ago. So it's really unclear whether it can survive and be the kind of efficient system we want it to be and remain democratic and accountable for the foreseeable future. We have to start really thinking about that.

NAYLOR: Wendy Schiller, a professor of political science at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, thanks very much for being with us today. And Congressman Jim Kolbe from Arizona, former Republican congressman, served in the House for 22 years, joined us from - on the phone from Miami, Florida. Thank you for being on the program. Coming up, the family tree has grown a lot more complicated. We'll talk about it on TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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