Washington’s Bad Old Days Worked Better Than the Good New Ones

All the shortcomings of an earlier era of politics — earmarks, opacity, deal-cutting, free-flowing campaign cash — also helped laws get made.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: U.S. President-elect Bill Clinton (2nd L) speaks to reporters 19 Nov in the U.S. Capitol building after meeting with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders. Standing with Clinton are (L-R) Vice President-elect Al Gore, Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, Speaker of the House Thomas Foley, Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole, and House Minority Leader Robert Michel. 
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Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Oct. 3, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

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.

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