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. 
AFP/Getty Images
Alex Seitz Wald
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
STAFF PICKS
When It Comes to Mining Asteroids, Technology Is Only the First Problem
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Obama Reflects on His Economic Record
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Reagan Families, Allies Lash Out at Will Ferrell
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."

Source:
PEAK CONFIDENCE
Clinton No Longer Running Primary Ads
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-ex­pec­ted primary battle be­hind her, former Sec­ret­ary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton (D) is no longer go­ing on the air in up­com­ing primary states. “Team Clin­ton hasn’t spent a single cent in … Cali­for­nia, In­di­ana, Ken­tucky, Ore­gon and West Vir­gin­ia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “cam­paign has spent a little more than $1 mil­lion in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone back­er in the Sen­ate, said the can­did­ate should end his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign if he’s los­ing to Hil­lary Clin­ton after the primary sea­son con­cludes in June, break­ing sharply with the can­did­ate who is vow­ing to take his in­sur­gent bid to the party con­ven­tion in Phil­adelphia.”

Source:
CITIZENS UNITED PT. 2?
Movie Based on ‘Clinton Cash’ to Debut at Cannes
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

The team behind the bestselling "Clinton Cash"—author Peter Schweizer and Breitbart's Stephen Bannon—is turning the book into a movie that will have its U.S. premiere just before the Democratic National Convention this summer. The film will get its global debut "next month in Cannes, France, during the Cannes Film Festival. (The movie is not a part of the festival, but will be shown at a screening arranged for distributors)." Bloomberg has a trailer up, pointing out that it's "less Ken Burns than Jerry Bruckheimer, featuring blood-drenched money, radical madrassas, and ominous footage of the Clintons."

Source:
×