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Tough Times Produce Familiar Refrain, but Is Reform the Answer?

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) announced last week that he was retiring because of Congress’ inability to get things done and its hyper-partisanship. Many in the media and general public nodded in sorry agreement, though some argued he should stay, not retire, and help fix things. After all, he is one of a dwindling breed of moderates who can still build bipartisan bridges.

[IMGCAP(1)]Bayh is joined by 15 House Members and nine other Senators in announcing their voluntary retirements at the end of this Congress (not counting another 18 Members running for other offices). Members leave Congress for a variety of reasons. Some want to pursue other opportunities in the private sector; others step down in the face of likely defeat at the polls; while still others simply want to travel, relax and enjoy their families in their golden years.

Bayh was more candid than most in expressing his great frustration with a dysfunctional institution that seems to spend more time fighting than legislating. It’s not unusual for senior retiring Members, who remember more harmonious and productive times, to offer the parting lament, “It’s just not fun anymore.” Younger retiring Members, on the other hand, wonder whether it ever was fun. Nevertheless, they all tend to share a sense of Congressional fatigue — worn down by ponderous processes and seemingly intractable problems.

To those of us who have been around for a while, the retirees’ complaints are familiar and the number of voluntary departures not surprising. Our constitutional system of divided powers has become more divided over time, it seems, and less likely to come together to get important things done for the good of the country. We are bludgeoned every few years by alarmist cries of a “Constitution in crisis,” “Congress in gridlock” and a “presidency paralyzed,” only to realize a few years later that we somehow rode out these cataclysmic events without a revolution or military coup.

President Barack Obama, like many of his predecessors, took office during troubling times, saddled with a deep recession and two wars. In his inaugural address he attempted to articulate what ails us as a nation, calling on the people and official Washington to “proclaim an end to petty grievances and false promises,” “to set aside childish things” and “to reaffirm our enduring spirit.”

In his State of the Union address in January, the president reiterated the theme at the heart of his campaign for the presidency: “We face a deficit of trust — deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years.”

“To close that credibility gap,” he went on, “we have to take action at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue — to end the outsized influence of lobbyists; to do our work openly; to give our people the government they deserve.”

Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue do share the heat for our nation’s ills when there is a public perception that nothing is being done to cure them. Congress tends to get more of the blame, however, because it does not speak or act in a timely manner with a single voice or will, yet it is ultimately responsible for passing the necessary corrective legislation.

It is at such moments that the government watchdog gurus dust off their dog-eared Congressional reform recipe books and start reciting their favorite nostrums for changing the way Congress works: Abolish the filibuster, the seniority system, private financing of campaigns, partisan redistricting, Congressional pensions and unlimited terms, pork-barrel spending, and lobbyists’ contacts with Members. On and on goes the list of quick fixes for a dysfunctional Congress.

In his State of the Union address, Obama gladly offered his own laundry list of reforms to change how Washington works. Some actions he has already taken unilaterally by executive orders. Others he has urged Congress to take. Included in the latter category are disclosure of lobbyists’ contacts with Members of Congress, limits on lobbyists’ campaign contributions to candidates, online publication of earmark requests on a single Web site and an end to individual Senators being able to block executive branch nominations by placing “holds” on them.

My own experience, having gone through several of these upheavals over four decades, is that process changes and electoral reforms are not the answer. They are no substitute for political will and leadership, though that’s often how and why they are used. It is easier to embrace process reforms as tangible, good faith efforts at change than it is to make tough policy choices for real change.

Even when reforms are adopted as rule changes or enacted as laws, they tend to fall far short of promised results. The reason is that they usually do not address the deeper, underlying source of our problem, which is a political culture driven by the diversity of our people and the resulting clash of ideas and interests (and yes, they are often represented by lobbyists). This is both our strength and weakness as a truly free and democratic society.

As our population and problems grow, so too does the difficulty of resolving our differences, especially since we have come to rely increasingly on the federal government for solutions. Representative democracy takes time. It is slow and messy. We as a people, on the other hand, are conditioned to expect instant gratification and solutions and are frustrated when our representative system does not quickly produce them.

The reverse side of this phenomenon, of course, is that when the people do form a consensus over exactly what they want done, Congress and the president can forge a terribly swift sword for action. And that can at times be just as dangerous to the republic as inaction.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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