As old-timers depart, Congress breaks down under new dynamics

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 8, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Congress is breaking down under the pressures of a number of modern, rapidly changing political dynamics.

Among them: the rise of hyper-partisanship magnified by today's Internet, talk radio and cable TV ideologues; the drawing of legislative district lines to maximize partisan purity and to avoid making lawmakers have to appeal to voters of all stripes; and the passing from the scene of legislative veterans who came of age politically in the pre-technology age and who were schooled in the art of compromise.

This week's news that veteran Sens. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., wouldn't seek re-election added their names to a growing roster of old-timers who once made the Capitol tick.

Within the last year, Delaware's Joe Biden, a 36-year Senate veteran, left to become vice president, and Edward Kennedy, who'd served in the Senate since 1962, died. Among Republican senators, Christopher Bond of Missouri, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Jim Bunning of Kentucky, George Voinovich of Ohio and Sam Brownback of Kansas all are retiring after long Senate careers.

The emerging culture of Congress is less collegial than it was in some but not all earlier times, and is becoming a place where lawmakers often feel like they're being watched every minute, said former Minnesota Rep. Bill Frenzel, a Republican and now an analyst at Washington's Brookings Institution, a center-left think tank.

An example: As Senate Democratic leaders in November struggled to get enough votes to pass health care, three dozen reporters hung out in halls eyeing everyone who visited the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's, D-Nev.

At 2:16 P.M., Nov. 18, Politico reported that "the three moderate senators, key to winning 60 votes to begin debate on reform...just walked into Reid's office." Then an update: "Reid is laying out his bill, said spokesman Jim Manley." Three days later, they all voted with the Democrats.

Such incessant Internet and cable news-driven attention allows constituents and analysts to judge every incremental development instantly. Lawmakers play to the cameras and cultivate the most intense partisan supporters by taking extreme ideological stands. The resulting frenzy "is putting at risk getting anything done that matters," said former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat.

Evidence: the Senate approved health care legislation only after nearly four weeks of Republican-driven procedural delays forced a pre-dawn Christmas Eve vote, the first time since 1895 that members voted on Dec. 24.

This summer, 31 of 40 Republicans voted not to confirm Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, an unusually high number for a largely noncontroversial nominee.

Efforts to enact climate control legislation have stalled in the Senate.

Congress was only able to increase the debt limit last month enough to allow Treasury to sell bonds through mid-February, and will have to vote again this month to raise the debt limit again.

Traditionally, fine points and flashpoints of legislation are smoothed out behind closed doors, usually by key members from both parties, then presented to often-reluctant lawmakers who have little choice but to go along.

Not in the 111th Congress. Republicans have either been shut out or have chosen not to participate seriously (depending on one's point of view). And lawmakers of both parties rack up more political points by railing against their partisan opponents than by trying to explain painstaking compromises that would annoy their party's ready-to-blog base supporters.

"We used to wallow in blissful anonymity. Newspapers couldn't cover us all as individuals," recalled Frenzel. "We'd go home and tell constituents what we were doing, and they'd usually believe us."

But now, said Richard Parker, public policy expert at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, "second and third tier (media) figures have found their way into the feeding chain. Bloggers often drive cable, cable drives the networks, and so on."

This new dynamic dealt a blow in particular to the Senate as "the world's most exclusive club," where until several years ago colleagues would gather after the day's business for drinks and camaraderie.

Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, remains optimistic that the Senate will find ways to work well. He compared the Senate to an accordion, one whose spirit comes and goes. In 1856, after all, a South Carolina congressman caned Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the Senate floor and left him dazed and bleeding, and the civil rights debates of the 1950s and 1960s were downright ugly at times.

Some of today's changes came from within the institution. C-SPAN began televising the House of Representatives in 1979 and the Senate seven years later. The cameras changed the dynamic in two ways: No one had to go to the floor anymore, except for often infrequent votes, since they could follow proceedings from anywhere.

It also meant that even the most junior members of Congress could become well-known — a development that Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., a rowdy backbencher, was able to use in the 1980s, when conservatives would make speeches in the evenings that would be beamed across the nation. Gingrich eventually became speaker of the House.

Taking nuanced positions became more difficult for lawmakers amidst such political dynamics, but there still were enough tradition-minded members who saw the value of comity and compromise.

Kennedy's legislative and personal skills were viewed as crucial to helping write an overhaul of the nation's health insurance system. All the necessary pieces seemed to be in place last year — a Democratic president with a fresh mandate, Democratic control of 60 Senate seats, a handful of willing Republican moderates and a powerful Democratic House speaker eager to muscle through legislation.

But Kennedy, suffering from the brain cancer that would kill him, was absent most of last year, and the House bill wound up with a government-run plan hated by conservatives and the Senate version didn't attract a single Republican vote.

"The first thing he (Kennedy) would have done would have been to call me and say, 'let's work this out,''' said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Instead, Democrats so far have shut the GOP out of closed-door final negotiations and Republicans are seething _not a good sign, said Kerrey, for the fights that are looming over global warming, budget policy and other matters ahead.

Lamenting the trend is Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., the late senator's son. After his father died, a bipartisan group of lawmakers invited him to join a Bible study group to help deal with his grief.

"We talked about the acrimony in Congress," Kennedy said. "We universally agreed the solution is to take cameras off the floor."

But that, he figures, isn't going to happen. Not in today's world.

ON THE WEB

Politico blog from Nov. 18, 2009

The caning of Charles Sumner

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Check out McClatchy's politics blog, Planet Washington

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