Weeks like this one tend to engender nostalgia in the capital for an older way of doing things—when politicians could cut unseemly deals in proverbial smoke-filled back rooms and rest assured that the messy sausage-making process was mostly invisible to the public.
In the past decade, Congress has become more transparent, less corrupt, and more responsive. This is good. But at the same time, it has become less functional, more partisan, and more deeply despised by the American people. With the best of intentions, it banished earmarks, pulled back the curtain on the lawmaking process, vilified the craft of politics, and “reformed” campaign finance, all in the hope of cleaning up the system. With the government closed, Congress gridlocked, and no resolution in sight, maybe it’s time to acknowledge that the 21st-century reform agenda has mostly failed. “I do long for an earlier time, with all of its flaws and warts, where politicians could operate as politicians—and that’s not, to me, a pejorative term,” says Norm Ornstein, a proud institutionalist, and an institution himself, who has studied Congress for decades at the American Enterprise Institute.
Take earmarks. They’re unbecoming and occasionally corrupt (just ask Jack Abramoff), but for every Bridge to Nowhere, dozens of worthy projects got funded. The Transportation Department once tried to launch a campaign stigmatizing earmarks for useless roads and bridges, but it abandoned the effort when it realized most of the appropriation requests were for projects that met the department’s merit-based standards. Yes, earmarks often involved quid pro quos, but that’s useful, not harmful. “It’s an integral part of how we function,” the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said in 2010, just before the Senate did away with them. Often called legislative grease, pork was better described by the late political scientist James Q. Wilson as the “necessary glue that holds political coalitions together.” In Bloomberg Businessweek, Brendan Greeley asked this year, “Would it really be so terrible to reintroduce some congressionally sanctioned bribery? That would let members lay claim to the odd million in the interest of striking a deal worth much more.”
Or take campaign finance reform. The 2002 McCain-Feingold law inadvertently undermined political parties, creating a vacuum later filled by outside groups, such as the Senate Conservatives Fund, which helped elect people like Ted Cruz. “When the money went through the party, the party would help find the candidate. And your candidate wasn’t too far to the right or too far to the left,” former Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert told National Journal. “When you did away with that, you pushed all the money out to the far left … [and] the far right.”
Even transparency deserves a critical look. Hill rags and Internet gossip sheets now cover incremental legislative updates, with a focus on process, which is ugly and easily distorted for partisan gain. Leaked comments and proposed deals often stymie negotiators. “Congress is still trying to adapt to a world without earmarks and with hyper-transparency,” says Rep. Thomas Massie, a libertarian Republican from Kentucky who is very much of the new school of politics.
Even attempts to let Americans in on the back and forth are pointless. Just look at what happened when President Obama vowed to negotiate the Affordable Care Act in public: a televised afternoon of Kabuki talking points. C-SPAN has the laudable goal of making the legislative process accessible, but for all its unassuming tediousness, it’s turned the House into little more than a cable-access studio for members of Congress to grandstand and berate the other side. Meanwhile, all the real action has been pushed further away from the cameras.
Everyone bemoans the backroom deal, the subject of negative ads and innuendoed press coverage. But the clubbiness, the opacity, even the haze of cigar smoke served a purpose. “Taking away some of the ability to sit down in a back room and cut some deal, then bring it forward and know they’re going to be able to bring their troops, along—for all the drawbacks that come from that kind of deal-making, it has its places, and we miss it,” Ornstein says.
Institutional Washington is in a death spiral. It doesn’t function, so Americans disdain it and elect lawmakers who share their contempt. They, in turn, don’t do anything to fix it, so stagnation worsens. There’s a consequence to the Washington-bashing: “Every member of Congress runs for Congress by running against Congress,” says Lee Hamilton, who served 34 years on the Hill as a Democrat from Indiana and now directs the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “But it eventually becomes a dangerous proposition.”
Disdain for Washington has become almost a litmus test for politicians in both parties. They stigmatize living here full time, and today’s congressional calendars allow for more and more time back home. The goal—to keep lawmakers in touch with their constituents—is commendable, but the result creates fewer opportunities for lawmakers to work, let alone socialize, together. “The solution is … a return to the regular order of doing business,” Hamilton says. “For a couple hundred years, we developed a process in this country.… It was not a smooth process; it was messy, it was partisan. But it fundamentally worked.”
Hastert, however, isn’t holding his breath: “Look, the old days aren’t going to come back.” That’s the thing about the old days. They never come back.