Senator Straitjacket Is a Symptom of A Bigger Problem

Posted August 25, 2008 at 6:49pm

Are you among those on Capitol Hill who are frustrated, and not a little embarrassed, by the single-minded dedication of just one minority Senator, Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), to successfully stop the legislative progress? Then you are standing in a long line, increasing in length on both sides of the aisle.

Coburn basks in the gleam of his own limelight whenever someone refers to him as “Dr. No” — a name bestowed on him because he is a medical doctor and preoccupied with stopping legislation. No one is sure what he is prescribing.

His efforts to tie up the Senate perhaps more accurately have earned him the nickname Senator Straitjacket, whose one-man brand of personal politics is a symptom of how individual political identities undermine the collaboration Congress needs to do its job.

However, one-man or one-woman brands are not new to Congress, and the way that politicians define themselves and hope to live another day is often dependent upon them. Many have been positive — the environment, civil rights, national defense, nuclear nonproliferation, even space exploration, and stopping government waste and abuse. Characteristically, Senators known for such positive causes are known but not entirely defined by them.

Yet how severe does one Senator’s brand of personal political behavior have to be before the only people with the power to do much about it will act? Does it have to be as dangerous as Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s (R-Wis.)? Senators unhappy with Coburn’s blocks on legislation have deferred to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to find a solution, ignoring their own role in realizing a solution.

The impact on the general election in November remains to be seen, but it belies a larger and deeper set of problems for Congress at a time when the country’s choice for presidential nominees would suggest otherwise. America is on the verge of electing a Senator to be the 44th president of the United States. The public has decided that it will depart from a pattern that has seen four of the past five presidents drawn from the ranks of governors because it wants someone closer to the action in Washington — and not just someone who has served in Congress, but, for only the third time in American history, a Senator who is currently in office.

However, it would be a leap of logic to connect this event to the public’s confidence in Congress. The two could not be further apart. The most recent Gallup Poll of public confidence in Congress suggests that placing the term “public approval” alongside “Congress” is a non sequitur.

As reported by the Christian Science Monitor on July 8: “Only 12 percent of Americans say they have a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in Congress as an institution — the lowest level ever for any U.S. institution since Gallup began asking the question 35 years ago. Congressional job approval, a slightly different question, has dropped to 18 percent.”

Such polls merely give us a pulse, not an explanation.

Congress stands and falls in the eyes of the public based on its success to do the things it must do deliberatively and collaboratively, and it falls even further when individuals are seen as weakening the institution by their own behavior. This behavior is most visible to the public when Senators and Representatives misuse their positions, and examples are found in both parties.

Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.). After almost 40 years in Congress, former Ways and Means Chairman Rostenkowski was convicted and imprisoned over petty schemes involving misuse of office funds, placing ghost employees on his payroll and trading officially purchased postage stamps from the House Post Office for cash.

Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.). After 14 years in Congress, Cunningham, an honored member of the U.S. military before that, pleaded guilty to accepting at least $2.4 million in bribes and underreporting his income.

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.). Ways and Means Chairman Rangel is being investigated for using official letterhead to write personal letters soliciting funds for the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at New York City College — following internal concerns raised about Congressional earmarks of $2 million for the same cause.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). The longest-serving GOP Senator in history, Stevens is the subject of indictments, a federal court appearance and alleged behavior involving favors and personal services provided by energy company executives in Alaska.

Yet the current low esteem in which the public holds Congress is very much professional, not personal. While the Gallup Poll does not suggest a parallel to the public’s desire to elect a sitting Senator as the next president, the underlying reasons and expectations are similar.

The public is equally disappointed in Congress and hopeful about a Senator in the White House precisely because the public sees Congress, the White House and official Washington as needed to directly address and fix all the problems the country is facing: the economy, the cost and availability of energy, mortgages and home foreclosures, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, health care, preserving Social Security and Medicare, and more.

Yet while Congress is trying to figure out how to win a game of chicken between Reid and Coburn, the public is rightly thinking of Congress as a whole. In fact, a more plain and straightforward case for a Congress, as a whole, that is greater than the sum of its parts could not be made.

So, what’s the problem? Congress is an institution, but it is not an organization. Managerially speaking, Members of the House and Senate are loath to tell others what to do because they do not want to be told what to do either. For the public, however, it is about time that Congress closed the gap between how it gets elected as individuals and how it must perform its job and work together, including its “leadership,” more like an organization.

The conventional approach would be to treat the problem as structural, hence political, and to see how the 2008 elections reset the power curve, particularly in the Senate. The likely solution, however, is neither structural nor political. It will be created by a committee of the willing, current leadership and others who align immediately and build strong momentum around key legislative and oversight initiatives that are going to help the country — the very issues that our next president, Democrat or Republican, is likely to have to tackle.

The public hopes that the 44th president of the United States will succeed at solving the problems of the nation — but that cannot occur without a Congress that leads as both an institution and an organization.

Steven L. Katz served as counsel to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and as director and senior adviser to then-Comptroller General David Walker. He is the author of “Lion Taming: Working Successfully With Leaders, Bosses and Other Tough Customers.”