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The Culture of Congress, Yesterday and Today

Many have commented on how much Congress has changed over the last 40 years for a variety of reasons, most noticeably from the increasing importance of political parties in the legislative process and their increased polarization from each other. In this roundtable discussion, former Members, congressional staff and area political scientists will discuss the ultimate question of whether there is any way to restore a greater measure of deliberation and bipartisan national problem-solving.

Date & Time

Apr. 30, 2012
3:00pm – 5:00pm ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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An April 30 roundtable discussion on the “Culture of Congress, Yesterday and Today,” cosponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Bipartisan Policy Center, revealed plenty of agreement on how much the culture of Congress has deteriorated over the last four decades, though there was no consensus on the exact causes of the decline or prospects for improvement.

Former Congressman Tom Downey (D-N.Y.) said, “The Congress I came to in 1975 bears no resemblance to the Congress I see today.  Now the media is sensational as opposed to thougthful and Fox News has changed the very nature of how one party talks to the nation.”  Downey said he found himself in agreement with the just published book by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” that Republicans in Congress are primarily responsible for the poisoned atmosphere and gridlock in Congress today; they oppose the president and Democrats just for the sake of opposing, even if it means changing positions.

Former Congressman Vin Weber (R-Minn.) said both parties bear responsibility for the ongoing partisan struggle that is directly related to the competition for majority control of Congress.  “Competition is normally good,” said Weber, “but in this case it has its downsides in practice.”  Weber said both parties are weak because they have ceded control of their basic functions of fundraising and agenda setting to their special interest group supporters who have no interest in solving national problems—they want to keep the conflict alive to increase their membership and raise money, “and that is driving issues down.”       

Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, cited three factors that have contributed to what many perceive as the changing culture of Congress over the last 40 years: the changing media culture that has evolved from a relatively slow news cycle to one that is now instantaneous with the emergence of 24-hour cable news, to the Internet, to social media.  The new, instant media make it difficult for Congressmen “to find insulated space to negotiate deals while lending itself to accusations of scandal and brutal partisan battles.”  The governing environment has also changed from one in which legislation was shaped by committees to one in which party leaders frame policies.  The institutional reforms of the 1970s gave birth to both the Watergate babies (class of 1975) and the young Republican Members that came with the Gingrich revolution (class of 1995) – groups that challenged their own leaders in Congress as well as presidents of their party.  Finally, the money culture has altered the Congress as campaigns became more expensive and important with frequent changes in party control. Campaign finance reforms only seemed to produce an accelerated arms race in fundraising.

Participants’ Suggestions for Changing Congress
Woodrow Wilson Center/Bipartisan Policy Center

(Note:  The suggestions below are those offered by individual roundtable participants* and do not reflect the position of the Woodrow Wilson Center, the Bipartisan Policy Center or the group collectively.)

  • Do away with leadership political action committees (PACs) by adopting a House and Senate rule prohibiting any Member or Senator from establishing, maintaining and soliciting for more than one campaign financing committee.
  • Given policy paralysis in Congress, should it establish more self-enacting, self-implementing mechanisms like the base-closing commission, sequestration if deficit reductions are not enacted, or the independent board for reducing Medicare costs—or would this be an abdication?
  • Find ways to re-engage people in the political process and rediscover some sense of shared mission. Vietnam and Watergate contributed to the erosion of confidence in government: people are wary of big government but like the benefits. Consider universal national service, either military or domestic/international civilian service to help forge a greater sense of responsibility and unity.
  • Instant media have shrunk both political space for Members to negotiate solutions to problems as well as social/civil society space for finding common ground and forging personal relationships to build on. This atomization has deterred Members and staff from finding ways to work together.
  • Create an independent commission in every state to draw congressional districts to ensure more competitiveness and diversity rather than the current process of party-drawn districts by state legislatures that Gerrymander the maps to ensure safe seats for the party.
  • Have congressional district lines drawn by a “unitary computer program coded simply to draw the least irregular boundaries that will achieve arithmetic uniformity among districts within a state.”
  • Find way to minimize the huge influence of “intense” Democrats and Republicans in states choosing primary candidates that represent the “uncompromising” elements of each party--e.g., the California system of open primaries in which the top two vote getters advance to the general election.
  • Reinvigorate committee expertise by eliminating term limits on committee and subcommittee chairs in House.
  • Encourage greater bipartisanship in committees by developing and starting with a bipartisan committee mark for bills rather than a chairman’s mark.
  • Make the Senate more majoritarian.
  • Motions to proceed to consideration of matters in Senate should be limited to one-hour of debate and not be subject to filibuster.
  • Nominations of persons who serve at the pleasure of the president should not be subject to filibuster while nominations of federal judges, who have lifetime tenure, would still be subject to filibuster; or
  • Motions to proceed to the consideration of non-judicial nominees would not be debatable if they received a two-thirds favorable vote in committee; or
  • Abolish filibusters altogether, or at least in the confirmation process.
  • Use a grass-roots campaign to highlight filibuster issue among voters and embarrass senators into changing Senate rules, and have majority party leader in Senate assert a “Thomas Reed-style campaign against it (e.g. force a rules change on the chamber….).”
  • Make it easier to go to a House-Senate conference committee by eliminating the possibility of a filibuster on the motion to proceed to consider a motion to go to conference.
  • Repeal the Budget Act and reconciliation process which have become exclusively partisan to the detriment of the committees.
  • Simplify multi-layered landscape of congressional budgeting and budget enforcement processes.
  • Find ways to discourage frivolous floor votes on matters that are offered solely to score political points (“position taking”) and are not serious policy proposals.
  • Lessen majority party leadership abuse and manipulation of the rules to secure desired partisan outcomes and allow committees and Members more leeway in processing and developing legislative solutions. Prohibit leadership from dictating decisions to the House Rules Committee as to what amendments can and cannot be offered. Eliminate the practice in the Rules Committee of self-executing the adoption of amendments that are a departure from the committee reported-bill; lengthen availability time of Rules Committee reports; and prohibit linkage on unrelated matters through special rules, e.g., debt limit increase and spending reductions.
  • If you can’t reduce the amount of money involved in campaigning, at least reduce the amount of campaign time, e.g., Canada Elections Act which both caps amount that can be spent in an election as well as the amount of time for campaigning.
  • Require a 60% vote for election of Speaker or a significant number of nominations from members of another political party; create non-partisan staff for committees; eliminate leadership PACs; have single lectern of House chamber for speaking, bipartisan cloakrooms; make references to a single, U.S. Congress, and not a Republican or Democratic Congress. (--Ex-Rep. Mickey Edwards, book to follow)

*Roundtable Participants are listed below.

Participants in Culture of Congress Roundtable Discussion (4/30/2012)

Jeff Biggs, American Political Science Association (former House staff member);
Christopher Deering, George Washington University
Rochelle Dornatt, Office of Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.)
Tom Downey, Downey McGrath Group (former Democratic Representative from New York)
Jim Dykstra, Edington Peel & Associates (former House and Senate staff member);
Mickey Edwards, Aspen Institute (former Republican Representative from Oklahoma);
John Fortier, Bipartisan Policy Center;
Alan Frumin, former Senate Parliamentarian;
Dan Glickman, Bipartisan Policy Center and Aspen Institute (former Democratic Representative from Kansas;
Bart Gordon, K&L Gates (former Democratic Representative from Tennessee);
Matthew Green, Catholic University;
Jane Harman, Woodrow Wilson Center (former Democratic Representative from California);
Kent Hughes, Woodrow Wilson Center (former Senate staff member);
Charles Johnson, former House Parliamentarian;
David Karol, University of Maryland;
Keith Kennedy, Baker Donelson (former Senate staff member);
Frances Lee, University of Maryland;
Scott Lilly, Center for American Progress (former Hose staff member);
Walter Oleszek, Congressional Research Service;
James Pfiffner, George Mason University
Earl Pomeroy, Alston & Bird (former Democratic Representative from North Dakota);
Donald Ritchie, Senate Historian;
Colleen Shogan, Congressional Research Service (former Senate staff member);
Tom Sliter, John C. Stennis Center (former Senate staff member);
Philippa Strum, Woodrow Wilson Center;
John Sullivan, former House Parliamentarian;
John Tanner, Prime Policy Group (former Democratic Representative from Tennessee);
Monty Tripp, ABB (former House staff member);
Matthew Wasniewski, House Historian;
Vin Weber, Clark & Weinstock (former Republican Representative from Minnesota);
Don Wolfensberger, Woodrow Wilson Center (former House staff member);
Julian Zelizer, Princeton University.



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