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Congress Needs Both Comity and Accomplishments

A look at the range of public opinion surveys on Congress in recent days, weeks and months can’t leave anybody happy. The most recent Associated Press-Ipsos survey showed a 25 percent approval rating, coupled with a staggering 70 percent disapproval — a 45 percent gap in the wrong direction. The most recent NBC-Wall Street Journal survey showed 19 percent approval and 68 percent disapproval, for a 49 percent gap.

[IMGCAP(1)]Democrats are taking comfort from the fact that much of the anger and disappointment people feel is aimed at Republicans. It should be scant comfort. To be sure, a recent ABC-Washington Post poll showed Republicans at 32 percent approval and 63 percent disapproval. But Democrats are not exactly exempt from public disgust; the same survey showed only 36 percent approval for them, with 58 percent disapproval. If Democrats think they can count on the unhappiness with President Bush and the residue of repugnance with the performance in Washington when the Republicans controlled all the levers of power, they are delusional. There is clearly a broader public anger about the performance of most institutions, but especially those in Washington, and it could very, very easily turn into a broader and deeper reaction against the status quo and all incumbents.

Dig a bit deeper, and it is obvious that voters are tired of the partisan bickering and ideologically driven rancor — they want problems solved in Washington, not yelling or posturing or revenge killing that only results in gridlock. The latter is what they see coming out of Congress.

Of course, this is not entirely fair. The 110th Congress has some significant accomplishments, including implementing the 9/11 commission recommendations, increasing the minimum wage, expanding college aid, implementing “pay-as-you-go” budgeting and working hard to make it a reality, and passing significant lobbying and ethics reform. But many other things have passed the House and foundered in the Senate, or been stopped, like children’s health insurance, by a presidential veto. And, of course, Congress has spent countless hours trying futilely to do something to change course in Iraq.

Just as important, the image of Congress is far more that of a dysfunctional body riven with partisanship than a well-oiled, or even marginally oiled machine working hard to help the country and its people with their daily challenges. On this front, the blame is widespread, going both to an irresponsible minority and an insensitive majority.

But the onus is especially heavy on the majority. It is the majority, especially in the House, that has the power to shape debate and either to open up or shut down the process to ideas, amendments and involvement by rank-and-file Members in both parties. It is the majority that has to rise above the cheap shots, irresponsible motions to recommit and outrageous rhetoric, both to serve the larger interests of the House and to serve their own partisan interests in maintaining a majority.

The attitude of some Democrats, including some in the leadership, is eerily reminiscent of the Republican leaders in 2005 and 2006 — voters don’t really care about the internal dynamics of Congress, and even if they are unhappy, our fundraising advantages and strong candidate recruitment will keep us in charge. That is a formula for repeat disaster. Even if Democrats can continue to maintain a thin edge over Republicans in the approval/disapproval ratio, keep up their funding advantage and gain leverage from the retirements of many Republican moderates in contestable districts, their ability to hold a majority beyond 2008 will be severely limited.

The first thing Democrats should do is develop a basic sensitivity and avoid doing stupid things that gain nothing except additional enmity from their counterparts. A good example was the utterly foolish decision to schedule a revote on SCHIP when many Republicans from California were back home tending to their constituents in the midst of the disastrous fires. There was no good reason for pushing that vote instead of delaying it until Members could be back to participate. It reminded me again of the high-handed and insensitive behavior of Republicans in the 109th Congress, when they would quash debate or screw the Democrats for no good reason other than that they had the power to do so.

The second thing Democrats should do is to accept the possibility of defeat on the floor as something short of a disaster. The biggest failing of the GOP in the 109th was an unwillingness to lose no matter what. Of course, you don’t want to lose, and can’t afford to lose on some basic important issues and priorities. But in other cases, amendments can be constructive or no great disaster (and in some cases, amendments the majority doesn’t like can be allowed to pass and jettisoned in conference).

The third thing Democrats should do is to move aggressively to more debate, and not only between Democrats and Republicans. Now is a perfect time to revive the idea of regular prime-time debates on important issues. Take one evening a week, in special orders, and structure a lively debate on something of concern to the country. Have two or four Members lead the way in debate, and follow with a free-for-all discussion. In some cases, say global warming or trade, have both majority and minority Members on each side. Add to that a regular process of having real debate on bills that reach the floor whenever possible.

Now a fourth suggestion: It is possible that Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who are legislators, would react to a new Democratic attitude and approach with their own constructive responses. But it also is possible that they, egged on by their own bomb-throwers, would just try to take advantage of any new opening for greater partisan leverage. So Democratic leaders should also open up serious lines of communication with the retiring Republicans such as Reps. David Hobson (Ohio), Ray LaHood (Ill.) and Deborah Pryce (Ohio). Make a deal: We will bend over backward to accept your amendments and the nonfrivolous or nongotcha ones by your colleagues, and to be more fair and open, if you offer such amendments and encourage others, and if you object to irresponsible motions to recommit. The retirees have one last opportunity to make a difference in the way the House operates and in helping to solve the nation’s problems. It is a long shot, but it just might work.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.