The Vanishing Congress and the Rising Deep State
A Washington insider reflects on the growing imbalance of powers
Former FBI Director James Comey recently denied the existence of a “deep state.” Rather, he says there is a “deep culture” of so-called meritocratic technocracy. That sounds like deep euphemism to me, but it’s worth asking what this vague and sinister term actually means before asking whether it exists.
Jeffrey Bergner, author of The Vanishing Congress, is a long-time Washington insider who has found the roots of something like a deep state in the legislative branch’s abdication of its one job: to make the laws. This might sound like a dream come true for libertarians, but since nature abhors a vacuum, this vital function ends up getting usurped by unelected bureaucrats and unaccountable district judges.
Bergner says that Congress has ceded too much of its authority to the executive branch — with its mutant bureaucratic army — and broken down the checks and balances that the Founders designed to ensure that government represents the people and not its own entrenched interests.
When the executive branch is given such broad leverage to implement laws without express authorization of Congress, presidents and executive agencies are encouraged to legislate by fiat.
Then come the executive orders.
Politics Without Romance
James Buchanan once described the public choice school of political economy as “politics without romance.” Applying economic thinking to public institutions, we observe the results of politicians and bureaucrats pursuing their rational self interest. This is where the true origins of the deep state lie, if anywhere.
Congressional staffers write upwards of 12,000 pieces of legislation every year. Energetic career bureaucrats justify their own existence by continuously issuing new regulatory edicts. Meanwhile, senators and congressmen pretend to do their job, but favor outrage theater over real policy fixes.
So how can we get Congress to reassert its rightful duty to legislate? For starters, Bergner suggests that Congress would be 20% more efficient with 20% fewer staff. I’m conflicted, since I like the idea of shrinking government, but I’m not so sure about increasing congressional efficiency. I question Bergner on this idea, as well as his proposal to reduce debate on cabinet nominations from 30 hours to 2 hours. Isn’t deliberation a good thing? Or have nominations largely become a sideshow of political theater?
Finally, we discuss whether gerrymandering, lobbying, and corporate money are the real problem, or if Congress’s dysfunction is related to its own internal rules and procedures?
Bergner has a storied, colorful career, and his book is a true behind the scenes look at how the meat is made. Tune in to see how Washington actually operates.
The Vanishing Congress
How the Most Important Branch of Government Has Failed Us
Bob Zadek: Welcome back to The Bob Zadek Show. Thank you for joining me and my guest, Jeff Bergner this Sunday morning. I have spoken long and hard about how I yearn for a smaller, less powerful federal government, and in fact smaller and less powerful government in general. That is not the trend. Government has become all powerful and more intrusive.
This morning’s show, however, I am going to mourn the loss of power of at least one branch of government, namely the loss of power of the congress. When our country was formed, the Founders imagined intended that Congress would be the most powerful and the most significant branch of government. They, after all make laws. Laws compel us to do something or prohibit us from doing something.
Most laws take away our freedom. Congress is the branch of government that has the power to take away our freedom or protect it, a hefty task. Yet the power of Congress has been eroded. Today we will try to learn why Congress has lost power, and how we are all worse off because of the loss of this power. As I studied the operation of Congress, I could never figure out how the power was lost. Finally, after wandering the streets of America, I found the man to supply the answer. I am happy to welcome to the show Jeff Bergner. Jeff has just written an important and easy to read book called The Vanishing Congress.
Yes, Congress is vanishing in terms of its power and importance. Jeff was an assistant secretary of state of legislative affairs from 2005 to 2008, he is a president and managing financial partner of Bergner Bockorny, Inc., a lobbying group in Washington, and he is also an adjunct professor at the National Security Studies program at Georgetown. He was a policy director for Senator Luger. He was a staff director on the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations. In short, Jeff has sacrificed his life laboring in what must have been one of the more frustrating jobs at least some of the time, trying to get something done. Jeff has accumulated a wealth of experience and is as inside the beltway as one could be, and he will share with us his highly informed views as to what the heck happened to Congress. Where did their power go? How can we get it back?
Jeff Bergner: Thank you very much Bob, it is a pleasure to be with you.
Historical Overview: The Importance of a Strong Congress
Bob Zadek: Jeff, you and I have a similar political orientation and yet both of us are concerned about the loss of governmental power. Has Congress lost its power and importance, and if so, how did it happen? Congressmen are ambitious and took the job to affect people’s lives. How did their power erode and over what period of time?
Jeff Bergner: Let me begin by saying that it might seem incongruous for someone to advocate that a branch of government be stronger, not weaker, and I would say to all of my libertarian friends that if Congress were the only institution in the federal government, a do-nothing Congress might very well be the best answer, but it’s not. In fact, when Congress does not act it cedes the field to the executive branch, the President, the independent regulatory agencies, and in some ways worst of all to the courts.
It’s not as if a stronger Congress is going to strengthen the overall power of the federal government, but it’s going to redistribute the power into the place it was intended.
The Article I branch of government is the very core, key institution of our government. I would be much more fearful of loss of liberties that come incrementally from the President, from the executive branch and their thousands and thousands of pages of regulations as well as the independent regulatory agencies and even the courts. So, an argument for strengthening congress is not an argument for strengthening the overall power of the federal government, but rather for redistributing it in a way that would be healthier.
Bob Zadek: I should also remind our listeners that the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the constitution, annunciate not an exclusive but a specific list of rights that are promised assured to every American or people who happened to be in the country. The Bill of Rights often uses the phrase, “prohibiting Congress from depriving us of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, etc.” The mention is of Congress. The Bill of Rights does not specifically limit the President or the Courts. We want the power to reside in Congress which is specifically limited by the Bill of Rights and not the other branches.
Jeff Bergner:That’s an excellent point. And let me just take as an example a concern some people have about restrictions on their freedom of religion. Congress has not passed any laws restricting freedom of religion. Where these restrictions come that people feel are troublesome are from the executive branch or from the courts. And this is the classic case in point. I’m not sure Congress would ever have the votes to do the kinds of things which the executive branch or the courts have done with regard to freedom of religion. But this applies to all kinds of other freedoms as well. I would say that returning power to Congress is a way to return it to the people in some measure. It makes it more likely that our liberties will be less jeopardized than they currently are.
Modern Congress: The Affliction of Legislative Laziness
Bob Zadek: We start with a Constitution that bestowed upon Congress the most important and most powerful branch of the three branches of government. It bestowed upon Congress the power to make laws that affect us within the limitations of the Constitution. I opened the show by bemoaning the erosion of Congress, an erosion which began within Congress itself. Congress is comprised of 535 individuals who were probably in grade school the most bossy people in the class. They kept their bossy-ness and worked and clawed their way into Congress. How did all these bossy people voluntarily give up all their bossy-ness? After all that’s how they got there? Or is it?
Jeff Bergner: This is a very important question. Over history the relative power of the executive branch and the Congress has varied. Sometimes the Congress has been a bit stronger and sometimes a bit weaker. Since the 1970’s however, I think Congress has become hopelessly inefficient and ineffective. It has not only watched as Presidents and the executive branch of taken powers from the Congress, but in some cases has simply voluntarily abdicated these powers and abdicated their role. There is in the Constitution a notion about non-delegation. It’s the Congress that is supposed to be responsible for passing all legislation or all things that govern us and all things that affect us. This has long since ceased to be the case.
It is a very fair question to ask why this has happened? One could point to a number of things. For one thing, the job of being a member of Congress has changed substantially. There was a period of time when legislative craftsmanship was valued, people who could write legislation that was thoughtful and not extreme, and which had a prospect of getting majorities in both houses and being signed by the President. This was considered to be a virtue. That time is gone. I think there’s almost no one in either house who today I think would be thought of as a capable legislative craftsmen. To the contrary, the coin of the realm has changed. What members of Congress now seem to seek is not praise for being legislative craftsmen, but being able to successfully present 30-second or 60-second soundbites.
There are people who see their notoriety with the press as the reward for serving in Congress rather than passing legislation. This has really affected the entire operation of the congress. There are other factors as well, but so long as members of Congress are publicity seekers as opposed to legislative craftsmen, I think, we are going to have this continuing problem.
Look at AOC from New York. She is really in some ways as well-known or maybe better known now than any other house member, which is a thorn in the side of Nancy Pelosi for sure. But she has no interest in crafting legislative provisions that are thoughtful or careful that are possible to pass. To the contrary, she wants to make news, and this is in a microcosm is pretty much the same dynamic that operates for most all members of the House and Senate now.
Individual Insignificance and All-Powerful Leadership
Bob Zadek: Nobody campaigns because they are a good wordsmith. Nobody campaigns because they have a grasp of the issues. Individual elected officials are just to be an obedient party member. They are not joining a group because they add intellectual heft to the group and make the work-product better. That’s not even why they are there. Help us understand how fairly insignificant an individual House member is as compared with the power of the leadership. If you can tell us how the power works out in the house and what difference an individual member can make.
Jeff Bergner: Let me go back in history a little bit to the writing of the Constitution. If you look at some of the documents that surround it, the notes on the Constitutional Convention, known as The Federalist Papers, you see there that the Framers of the Constitution thought not only that representation was a good thing in and of itself. They were no fans of direct democracy. They also thought that the representatives that we chose would be better than we are on the whole, and better than the average member of the electorate. They thought they would be smarter, wealthier, more well-connected, and that they would have a better sense of what it is that is good for the country. They would refine and enlarge the opinions and emotions of the American populace.
Is this true? If it was ever true, is it still true today? I think in some technical ways it’s true that members of Congress have slightly higher formal educational backgrounds. They are certainly far wealthier than most Americans, and they are probably better connected as well. But, as to the question of whether they possess more capability to understand exactly what the country needs at this point or how to go about it, or whether they have the virtues to attempt to achieve that, I am very doubtful about that, based on a long time both being in Congress, working alongside of it and against it.
I have never seen any case that members of Congress have any superior virtues these days than any other American. They seem to me to have all the same shortcomings, foibles and, and other limitations that other Americans have. They are not particularly well-qualified, nor is it really even their intent to think through what is the best long-term for the country.
What happens instead is that, again, based in part on these attractive soundbite issues, one party or another will attempt to advance some particular ideological notion of what should happen and the expectation is that party members should fall in line. And pretty much for the most part, that is what happens. And so what you have seen really is a very substantial consolidation of power in the leadership in the House and the Senate in a way that was not so much the case in our past history. We’ve had strong leaders in the House and Senate off and on for sure, but institutionally these days the leadership really commands the entire system system in a way that it never really has before, in particular if you look at issues of spending.
The budget is after all the key thing that the Congress is supposed to do each year. To make decisions about what things we as a country are going to spend money on and what we won’t, and how much and how little.
This whole budget process is absolutely screwed up. It doesn’t work. What happens is that at the end of the session, the power falls to the leadership to try to cobble together and pass something that will extend the budget perhaps for another year, but perhaps only for partial years. The leadership doesn’t really mind this at all. They have power which comes to them almost by default from the structure that’s in place for how the Congress is supposed to pass budgets.
Bob Zadek: Since there’s been an erosion, or a devolution of power up from the membership to the leadership, and from the membership to the chairs and from the chairs to the leadership when you vote for a specific member of Congress, it almost doesn’t matter who you vote for. You are simply voting for your guy or the other guy and the majority decides which leader in the house gets to run the house. So it is almost a party-vote and not an individual vote. The individual, the members of Congress, are for the most part plug-and-play. It could be anybody so long as they were in the right party. Individual members make very little difference.
Jeff Bergner: I think that’s largely true. Here is an example. I live here in the second district in Virginia, which is a fairly closely contested district. It has been held by Republicans, by Democrats, then by Republicans, and now again by a Democrat. And this Democrat promised during her campaign that she would not follow slavishly the wishes of Nancy Pelosi, et cetera, et cetera. This was an attempt to distinguish her from simply being another member of the Democratic Party.
However, as soon as she came to Washington, while there have been occasional moments when she will do something a little bit different than the speaker wants, she never really deviates from the speaker on matters of importance. So people understand that the electorate doesn’t want people like that and they will campaign differently from the way they act once they get to Washington.
But once they get to Washington, they by and large do follow their party leadership. The only times in which members seem to take stands against their party are when it simply doesn’t matter or when there are plenty of votes to pass something that the majority leader or the speaker wants to pass. Then, of course, you could have a little bit of flexibility and you don’t want to compel members to vote the same way. But on important issues that really matter, these people simply follow the leadership by and large in a very slavish way.
Bob Zadek: The only exception perhaps in the whole congress is one of my idols, Justin Amash, who has no difficulty complaining long and hard about the very power structure you’ve described and he has been punished by leadership but it doesn’t deter him from complaining openly and in his district about how dysfunctional Congress is. Out of 435 members, he is probably the only one who does it. So, the only one who even is aware of and objects to the very structure that you’ve described.
Jeff Bergner: There are a number of other members that fall into that category, maybe not quite so pointedly as he does. For example, there’s a very young and very capable member from Wisconsin named Mike Gallagher, and he has bucked the leadership on a number of votes and he is also very much interested in ways to reform the Congress in order to change the realities which we have right now. He and I did a conversation together at the Hudson Institute a while back. He is very much concerned with this as are a number of other house members. Generally speaking they are the younger ones who have not been browbeaten for very long and who still have a degree of independence left. I think they are open to some kinds of changes which empowered the members of Congress to greater degree than now.
The Modern Anti-Institutionalist Congress and Abdication of Law-making Responsibility
Bob Zadek: There is a phrase in Washington, “institutionalist,” those members of Congress who have as part of their motivation a respect for preserving the historical prerogatives of the institution. They care about the institution of Congress. Help us understand what it is that made so many members of Congress non-institutionalists, so they don’t care about what is happening to the institution. Senator Byrd, of course, was the last institutionalist. Get us into the head of the typical member of Congress. What motivates them if not preserving the institution? Congress, as we said, is giving up its powers. Why would an individual member of Congress concede its powers?
Jeff Bergner: You mentioned Senator Byrd from West Virginia. He had a very checkered, and an unhappy past as a Klan member and whatnot, but he did care very deeply about the institution in a way in which the framers of the Republic thought all House and Senate members would care because protecting the institution would protect their own interests.
What I think has happened is two things. First, as we’ve just discussed, the average member of Congress would not really gain much in power if power shifted back away from the president to the Congress because the power is concentrated in the leadership, so there is no particular gain for them whether it is the leadership of the House and Senate that is exercising power or whether it’s the president.
The second thing is even more depressing I think. And that is that having gotten a little bit of a taste of what it’s like not to exercise power, but to be free from the responsibility of exercising power, members of Congress don’t really like to take very hard votes anymore. They would just as soon allow the President to make hard decisions, or a Cabinet department like the EPA, or an executive regulatory agency or the courts, and then come behind them and criticize them when they feel obliged. It is a very depressing moment in the history of the Congress where the coin of the realm is no longer even power but notoriety. They have a very nice job.
They’re looked up to and admired. They are catered to in so many different ways that they have no interest in not being members of Congress, but there is no particular virtue to plunk back upon them all of the hard issues and the hard questions of the country. You can take immigration as a perfect example. Immigration is clearly an issue which the Congress is supposed to address. It is a very complex issue concerning who we want to come here legally, how many people, how we intend to prevent people who aren’t coming legally from coming here, what to do with the 11 or 20 million people that are here illegally, etc. This is not something for one man to decide. This is something for the Congress to decide and to reflect and to mirror the sentiments of the country.
What has happened is they have simply shown a complete and utter unwillingness to address the issue, leading to Barack Obama’s executive orders with DACA and the others and in turn to Donald Trump to issue executive orders, and then in turn for the court to get itself deeply involved in deciding the constitutionality of these executive orders in a way in which he has never done before.
Congress has fueled this entire process. In some ways you could say it’s to their advantage as members because they don’t have to make a hard decision. They don’t have to decide what to do about the southern border. They don’t have to decide what to do about people who are here already. They will let somebody else do it and simply criticize them when they don’t like it.
In a way, I think that the whole incentive structure of the Congress has changed, and it is so hard now to pass legislation. Here I come to the main point in my book. The third point is that it is so hard to pass legislation these days because of the self-imposed rules and requirements and processes that they put upon themselves. It is almost impossible to imagine them dealing with a very complex and hard issue. We see this in regards to immigration, trade and tariffs, war powers, and all other Congressional powers.
Case Study of Delegation: Obamacare
Jeff Bergner: For example, look at Obamacare. Here’s a situation where Congress actually did work, didn’t it? After all it passed the law. Well, if you look at the 906 pages of the bill, and it may be a testimony that I have nothing else to do with my life, but I have actually looked at the 906 pages of the bill. What you see there is on virtually every other page, not legislation, but an authorization for the Secretary, meaning the secretary of HHS, to do whatever he or she pleases to implement Obamacare. And so the net of the Obamacare bill was not really a law in which Congress spoke about things, but a law in which Congress devolved huge amounts of new authority upon the Secretary of HHS.
This is why Obamacare got as far as it did under Obama and it is why Trump has been so easily able to roll back some of the parts of Obamacare. There were no laws made. There were simply new powers granted to the secretary of HHS, depending on whoever that may be. I really think they have gotten so used to a system where it is so hard for them to do anything, that the easier course is simply to sit back and let other agencies and departments or branches of government act, and then simply come behind them and criticize them, while enjoying the trappings of their office.
A Display of Congressional Hypocrisy
Bob Zadek: I am glad you picked immigration as an example. In Harvard Business school they take case studies of actual corporations that did good or bad and they use that to teach business. Well, the case study for everything you have said is immigration. It is classic. It is the case where Congressmen, Senators and members of the House, will go down to detention centers on the border and have photo-ops and complain about inhumane conditions and no toothpaste and no soap. They complain. And yet they are complaining about themselves because they are the ones who created it.
The hypocrisy of a member of the legislative branch of our government complaining about a situation that requires a legislative fix while they point the finger at either the court or the President. President Trump, who of course is no stranger to the exercise of raw power, seems to be complaining that the power is stuck with him. He is saying to Congress, “Fix it, I don’t want this power. But, if you don’t fix it, I have to do something. I have to carry out the laws and see that they are faithfully executed.” So, they stuck the President with a bad law and now make him deal with it.
Jeff Bergner: I think that’s exactly right. Trump would do anything and everything he could by executive order, I think. But he comes up to a point where he is constrained by this asylum law Congress passed a while back, which suggests that if you can get to the country’s border and get into it, you are guaranteed a review of your case under asylum conditions rather than simply being turned around and deported back. And this is something that Congress is responsible for and it is something that Trump cannot do by executive order. So, I think it’s a sign of the times really, that if President Trump wants Congress to actually act in some areas, this is a very grim sign about Congress. It is not only a textbook case in theory, but it’s a textbook case in reality.
I teach spring semesters at the University of Virginia and three years ago one of my courses was on immigration reform. I thought that would be the last year I could teach it. Well, by the next year, Congress had not done anything, so I used the immigration reform again, and then by the next year I used it again. I suspect if I were of a mind to, I could teach immigration reform for the next 20 years, because Congress simply seems unwilling to act.
Bob Zadek: And even when they act and pass important legislation such as Obamacare, as you have pointed out, the laws are replete with delegation of powers. They pass legislation with all the specificity of the 23rd Psalm. There’s no guidance. Or like the Ten Commandments. The ten commandments are not a bad starting point about how to organize your life, but you need a little detail besides just Ten Commandments. So Congress passes this beautifully worded and aspirational legislation. They pass positive goals, and then they tell the administrative state to actually do it. Now Congress can campaign on the beautiful legislation they passed, but it is not real legislation because it is merely aspirational.
Jeff Bergner: So much of the legislation has a kind of quality of it which sounds like “go and do good.” In the case of the EPA legislation, “clean up the air.”
Bob Zadek: Or the Endangered Species Act, which is impossible to carry out.
Jeff Bergner: How that is supposed to be done is really left entirely to somebody else.
Reforming Modern Congress: Four Solutions
Jeff Bergner: I want to talk a little about what might be done here to help Congress out of its own self-created problem. They have made it so hard for themselves with their procedures that they put in place to protect all the rights they think they have. Their rights as a minority, and their rights as a member of this committee, that they have made it very difficult to do anything, so there is not much of an incentive to try to do anything.
I have made four proposals in my book about what changes Congress could and should make. They are not ones that deal with how you get to Congress, like the 17th Amendment. They’re really reforms on how Congress actually operates. One reform is the Budget Act. This has been a disastrous failure since 1974 and it simply ought to be repealed replaced with a more manageable process by which the Congress every year appropriates money.
This could be devolved upon many more members than it now is. And we would not necessarily find ourselves in this place where all of the spending is balled up at the end of the year resulting in a threat of Government shutdown. If Congress worked to appropriate its bills the way it is supposed to, and then do separate appropriations bills for every area, the whole government would never be at risk of being shut down over one provision like the law. If only the Transportation Security Administration was at stake then only the transportation bill would be at stake, or the Homeland Security bill. The rest would all pass. I think a complete overall of the budget process and a simplification, taking power out of the hands of the appropriators and the leadership.
Secondly, and this is an outlier view. I would be inclined to reduce substantially the number of staff that exist in the Senate and the House. The staff is really what drives members down into the weeds to be concerned about things that aren’t really significant issues that they either should be or could be legislating about. I think a smaller staff would help direct the members to look at things themselves which are not simply staff creations.
If you look at the post-World War II period you can see that Congress did all kinds of things such as pass United Nations legislation and passing the NATO Treaty as well as setting up trade regime and, and a host of other things such as the CIA and the Defense Department. There were just a handful of staff members on committees at that point. So, I think the staff has become a part of the problem.
Finally, the Senate must do two things. First, I think the 60-vote requirement is not helpful. I was very much teared up when I went back and looked at the Federalist Papers and saw that Madison didn’t think it was useful or helpful either. Finally, the way in which they deal with nominees nowadays is absolutely ridiculous. They waste so much of their time fooling around when this should be a relatively simple process.
I’ve been cheered up immensely by the fact that the Republicans changed the rules concerning nominees. You used to have a rule that after you had committee hearings and then after you had debate on the floor, the majority leader would file for closure to cut off debate, then the minority party could ask for 30 more hours of debate, which is like a death sentence for most nominees.
There’s simply not enough time to give every nominee 30 hours of extra debate. And it’s basically part of a so-called “resistance.” And it is nothing other than a stall tactic, it does not make the nominees that get through any better or worse. So, I’ve been very much cheered up there.
When the system becomes so utterly dysfunctional as the nomination process has, then there is at least a little bit of hope that Congress might reform itself. I think maybe we’re coming to point with the budget act and the ridiculous amount of legislation that Senators introduce with no prospect or even intent of passing it, and finally the other ways that the Senate slows its work down and allows virtually nothing to be done. So, I think maybe we are coming to that tipping point with legislation and in particular the budget act.
Legislation without Deliberation: Have We Lost Representative Government?
Bob Zadek: You have lived in Congress for so long, perhaps you can help me. I was trying to find in my memory the last piece of significant legislation that was the result of deliberation. When was there House and Senate members who actually thought about an issue, discussed it amongst themselves, and came up with a collaborative work-product?
All of the recent big legislation, Obamacare, the tax bill, Dodd-Frank before that, is all the work-product of the leadership and the Executive, but by no means the product of deliberation — the very purpose of representative government. So we do not even have a representative government.
Remind us of a time of actual deliberation. Also, when was the last time that any member of the House or Senate in that deliberation changed their mind? Has It ever happened? And if there’s no changing of the mind, why are we deliberating?
Jeff Bergner: The latter is very difficult to find. I would point back to the early 1990’s as a case in point, when Senator Luger for whom I had the privilege to work, and Senator Nutten, a Democrat from Georgia, put together the Nunn-Lugar Act. They looked at the Soviet Union and they saw it crumbled and that there were now four countries there that had nuclear weapons, not one. They thought, “This is not good. How can we help the Russians to consolidate the nuclear weapons in one place? How can we then help them to get rid of all the extraneous and redundant weapons they had?”
This was something that didn’t strike all people at first as very sensitive or thoughtful. The administration didn’t like the fact that they proposed to take a little money out of the defense budget to do this.
Gradually, however, I think they persuaded people that this was the right thing to do. That was an instance, I think, where Congress actually did something good. It’s been 27 years since that happened. Prior to that, back in the late 1970s, Jimmy Carter recognized the PRC de-recognized the Republic of China and Taiwan, and basically left Taiwan on its own, the Congress came behind him and said, “that is not right. We need to keep our relationship with Taiwan strong. There’s no reason that we should saw Taiwan off just because the PRC wants us to” And so they produced the Taiwan Relations Act, which is a very comprehensive and thoughtful guide to keeping in place our relationship with the island of Taiwan, which after all is a democratic government now and very much unlike the PRC.
So, there are a couple of cases. I can’t really point you to one recently which has met that criteria. I think you’re absolutely right that the language of the bills you have talked about, whether of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau or Dodd Frank or the tax bill or whether Obamacare were all run through by simply partisan majorities and not by deliberative processes. So it’s been awhile and it is depressing to say that, but again I think they’ve made it so hard for themselves to pass legislation that it’s not surprising that they don’t.
Another Root Cause: Misplaced Loyalty
Bob Zadek: Loyalty to me is a very important concept. Loyalty is a very important measure of character in my mind. And the loyalty of the leadership is not to their institution and certainly not to their country, but to their party. What is good for the party is the dominant motivation. They schedule votes and legislation not based upon what’s good for the country or for the institution, but for the party. That is one of the root causes of the problem. The only job once in Congress appears to be to find a way to stay there. Please comment on that.
Congress is a very attractive place to be, especially if you don’t have to make very many hard decisions, and you get a lot of credit for whatever you’ve done or not done as the case may be. I think this kind of loyalty to the president of one’s own party has really trumped the loyalty to the institution. And again, I think in part that’s true because members have very little to gain if congress were to be stronger, unless they were all emboldened or had some greater power through the institution of Congress. They don’t care anymore whether their positions are determined by their own leadership or by the president, it is not determined by them in any case. So you have seen a strange and almost unbelievable deference to the Presidents, where Presidents issue executive orders on DACA, clearly taking away your power, and you get the Democratic majority and minorities at that time in the Senate and House applauding it.
Jeff Bergner: It is somewhat similar with Republicans and President Trump. Again, I think unless we can structure a system in which Congress can pass legislation more easily and in which more members of both houses have its stake in it, we’re not going to really see any significant change.
Predictions for the Future: The Tipping Point
Bob Zadek: One last question. Is there a reason for hope or despair?
Jeff Bergner: For an organization ever to reform itself is a very hard thing. Congress has the power to reform and change parts of the office of the Presidency or the Executive branch or the Courts and so forth. It is also unfortunately the only institution that has the authority to change itself, and for people or institutions to change themselves is often very hard. So I’d stipulate that right up front.
But, I do think that we are coming to a tipping point where it is so obvious that the Congress has become so utterly dysfunctional that it might well adopt some of these other measures in the same way that it changed its manner of confirming nominees that come before the Senate. So I remain a little bit hopeful that we might be able to reform the budget process and some of the other procedures of the House and Senate to make it a much smoother and fluid and efficient organization in which individual members have something at stake that they care about and can effect in one way or another.
Bob Zadek: I would love to see all Senate and House hearings be done behind closed doors so there cannot be posturing. They have no choice but to either not show up or use the meetings for substantive purposes and not for preening and not for giving long lectures to the witnesses.
- Has America Become an “Elective Monarchy”? Frank Buckley, October 26, 2014
- Making Congress Do Its Job, with Jonathan Wood, March 15, 2019
- Bob Talks Immigration, Government Shutdown, and Immigration Life!Line with Craig Roberts, January 16, 2019