Q& A: Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein

Congress as 'The Broken Branch'

Norman J. Ornstein says low voter turnout fosters partisan extremism in Congress by exaggerating the power of ideological activists.
Norman J. Ornstein says low voter turnout fosters partisan extremism in Congress by exaggerating the power of ideological activists. (American Enterprise Institute)
Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Even before the Mark Foley scandal broke, the 109th Congress was suffering from intense partisanship, legislative impasses and near-record-low public approval ratings. Incumbents are scrambling for reelection in the Nov. 7 general election, in which the Republican majorities in both houses are at risk. Regardless of the outcome, few lawmakers expect to rack up enough triumphs in the Nov. 13 lame-duck session to send the 109th Congress into the history books with high marks.

Two of the most knowledgeable congressional scholars are Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. Their new book is "The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track." They recently answered questions about their findings and views.

-- Charles Babington

Q Is the current Congress demonstrably more partisan than those in the past? Why does it matter?

MANN : Partisanship particularly increased after the 1994 elections and then the appearance of the first unified Republican government since the 1950s. Now it is tribal warfare. The consequences are deadly serious. Party and ideology routinely trump institutional interests and responsibilities. Regular order -- the set of rules, norms and traditions designed to ensure a fair and transparent process -- was the first casualty. The results: No serious deliberation. No meaningful oversight of the executive. A culture of corruption. And grievously flawed policy formulation and implementation.

Congress has been rocked by the Foley scandal. Was the House GOP leadership's response an example of reflexive partisanship? Are there larger lessons to learn from it?

ORNSTEIN : Part of the response to Foley was undoubtedly human nature -- lawmakers wanting to take Foley at his word that he wouldn't write any more improper e-mails. But it is hard to look at the responses of the collective majority leadership, including Speaker Dennis Hastert, GOP campaign chair Tom Reynolds and Page Board chair John Shimkus, without putting them into a context that makes it more damning.


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