Lefty pundits will tell you that the source of all dysfunction inside the Beltway is Republicans. Let’s concede that a segment of Republicans — the “no” crowd, the shutdown squad, the spoilers of Plan B on the fiscal cliff — have been beyond unhelpful in addressing our countries problems. But frankly the key to unlocking gridlock is taking President Obama out of the picture.
Consider that the lopsided budget deal came about because Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) essentially shut out the White House. An immigration bill got through the Senate only because Obama was kept at arm’s length; whenever he popped up, the process tended to stall. The resolution of the shutdown came from Senate Democrats and Republicans, not Obama. The original Budget Control Act was also a bipartisan legislative solution after Obama undid the grand bargain with the House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Even on foreign policy progress happens unless the White House intervenes. Republicans and Democrats were linked arm in arm on Iran sanctions and an additional House resolution until the White House bullied the Dems into holding off (for now). Agreement on the defense authorization act and compromise on sexual assault investigations also excluded the White House.
Maybe the key to progress, then, is keeping both the far right and the president out of the mix.
It is easy to see why the president is a disruptive factor. For starters, he believes opponents are stupid or evil and refuses to take their concerns as genuine. If you don’t understand the other guy it’s awfully hard to make a deal. That in turn leads to his favorite, unhelpful tactic — traveling around the country to excoriate Republicans. All this does is stiffen the spines of the left flank in his own party while annoying the Republicans.
The problems don’t stop there. A refusal to communicate with Congress (even members of his own party), a disinclination to get into or present the nitty-gritty details of legislation, a determination to make the other guys look bad even at the expense of a deal and the predilection for second-rate yes-men who don’t give him an accurate picture of the Congress or the country all combine to make Obama one of the least effective executives in recent times. His single “achievement” is the disastrous Obamacare, jammed through on a party-line vote when he had majorities in both houses. Since then? Nothing.
Some pundits make the case for strengthening the executive branch to avoid gridlock. Congress is so messy, so riddled with “special interests,” you see. Well, there is a reason the Founding Fathers tried to make Congress preeminent (Article I is the Congress, with top billing). Surely they were concerned with an executive who would become like the monarchs of the Old World and exercise dictatorial power. But there is another excellent reason to tip things Congress’s way: Because of staggered terms you have legislative continuity (even more so with gerrymandering) and a body of collective judgment that is broader and more diverse than a single chief executive can offer. If you have one cruddy president and an executive-heavy government, the country is out of luck for his term (need I say more?); whereas the Congress is generally not hobbled by a single defective person or rotten idea.
You don’t want to make permanent, constitutional changes based on one president or even one era of government, but the Obama example should remind conservatives that Congress is really where the action should be. The give and take –checks and balances and legislative process — as we know, is slow and deliberate, making radical change difficult. That has generally served conservatives well. But what about the crazies on the right (especially) running amok? And how do we solve problems that needs solving?
These concerns are real, but the solution is not an institutional or constitutional one. Certainly, campaign finance laws that push money out of political parties and into the hands of extreme groups that can boost similarly extreme candidates is one problem that has a fix (repeal McCain-Feinstein). But more generally, Congress can improve its output by also strengthening leadership in both bodies. Note the difference between the shutdown and this budget fight, the latter in which an emboldened speaker of the House is willing to rhetorically and legislatively beat down the far right.
Ironically with outside money and the end of earmarks, leaders have lost tools for keeping members in line. That leaves leaders with fewer mechanisms to move their body, but election of strong-willed leaders, seniority rules and committee assignments still offer some levers. (Telling cranks on the right that the “Hastert rule” never really existed and isn’t the way the House will run is another tool to force compromise within the majority and move legislation.)
For the next three years, we are likely to operate with a dysfunctional and inept executive. In foreign policy that is frightening. In domestic policy it’s the perfect opportunity for Congress to reclaim institutional authority, bolster internal controls and see if real work can get done when they keep the president at bay. Perhaps in divided government and a polarized country, big issues (e.g. entitlement reform) can’t get done, but middle- and small-sized gains are possible. Who knows — maybe the budget deal can be the start of some beautiful friendships, legislatively speaking.