MR. WATTENBERG: Hello. I’m Ben Wattenberg. What do you think about Congress? You know, if you’re like many Americans, you probably want to throw the bums out. But most congressmen and senators work hard and honestly. So why are so many voters angry with them?
Joining us today to sort through the conflict and the consensus are Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of’Renewing Congress.’ Edward Crane, president of the Cato Institute and co-editor of ‘Market Liberalism: A Paradigm for the 21st Century.’ Thomas Mann, director of Government Studies at the Brookings Institution and co-author of ‘RenewingCongress.’ And Jonathan Rauch, author of ‘Demo-Sclerosis: The Silent Killer of American Government.’
The question before this house: What’s wrong with Congress–this week on’Think Tank.’
You know, when American officers were captured during the Revolutionary War, they shouted, ‘Long live Congress.’ Long live Congress? Today, many citizens are shouting at their representatives, and the battle cry sounds like, ‘Off with their heads.’ What happened? Why are these usually dedicated men and women being so assailed? Well, take a look at Congressman Dan Rostenkowski’s recent 17count indictment. It is just the latest in a long line of embarrassment for our national legislature. Others include, check bouncing, postal fraud, sexual misconduct, savings and loan scandals, and bribery. Polls show that public respect for Congress has been at an all time low.
Look, Americans rate their representatives’ ethical standards even below those of journalists and television talk show hosts, and not much ahead of car salesmen and insurance salesmen. Why is the public so angry. Beyond the petty law-breaking, some say it’s arrogance. Even after all the furor, congressmen still get special perks–free mail, free parking at National Airport, and subsidized television studios. They exempt themselves from the normal enforcement of virtually every law they passed that governs the typical workplace–including Affirmative Action, worker safety, and the Americans withDisabilities Act.
Other critics of Congress point to the potent influence of wealthy special interest groups. Congress is also the most heavily staffed legislature in the world. The number of congressional employees has gone up six-fold since 1947.
Now, defenders of Congress argue that the actual corruption is much lower than it used to be. They say that the smoke filled back rooms are things of the past. Law-making is now more open to public scrutiny and access than ever before. And many of those so-called special interest groups, remember, often speak for the public.
Norman Ornstein, colleague, political scientists, tennis competitor–let us begin with you, sir. Is the Congress corrupt?
MR. ORNSTEIN: I would put myself on the side of those who would say it is far less corrupt than it has ever been. And also, we have a very ambitious study that was just done of 24 countries–the larger, mature democracies around–looking at laws and standards regulating ethics. Which has by far the toughest and tightest and has for years, and gets even tighter? The United States. Compared to other legislatures, it’s much less corrupt. But there’s no question,Ben, that the American people are absolutely convinced that it’s more corrupt than it has ever been, and it’s worse than it’s ever been.
MR. WATTENBERG: But you’re not.
MR. ORNSTEIN: No. And I think you wouldn’t find
MR. WATTENBERG: All right.
MR. ORNSTEIN: –a historian who wouldn’t tell you that it’s cleaner than it’s ever been.
MR. WATTENBERG: Let’s ask Ed Crane. Is the American Congress corrupt?
MR. CRANE: I’m not sure that corruption is the main issue anyway. But, yes. I mean, if you look at Jim Wright and Tony Qualo and Danny Rostenkowski and the Keating Five and St, Germaine and all that, there’s still obviously
MR. WATTENBERG: St. Germaine with the savings and loan scandal, right?
MR. CRANE: Right. There’s still obviously a lot of corruption in Congress. ButI think what bothers people more than corruption, per se, is the arrogance of Congress. There’s a tremendous sense that there’s a division between the–that kind of a ruling elite has grown up in Congress, and that they don’t relate to the people.
MR. WATTENBERG: Yes.
MR. CRANE: And that’s evidenced by the fact that they don’t even subject themselves to their own laws.
MR. WATTENBERG: Jonathan, what do you think of our distinguished Congress?
MR. RAUCH: I think, in a sense, it’s too clean–which isn’t to say that people should be more crooked. But, for an institution that’s complicated and politicalto work, you’ve got to have a certain number of power brokers who can function in back rooms. And we got rid of that–and now we’re paying the price for it.
MR. WATTENBERG: That the Congress over-reformed itself.
MR. RAUCH: In a sense, and it became too much power to too many subcommittee chairman, and these guys are worried about getting indicted for parking in the wrong parking space, when at the same time, they can gin up a tax bill and selloff a lot of tax breaks to a lot of interest groups, which they can then go to work for–and that’s legal.
MR. WATTENBERG: Tom Mann, is it perhaps also a function of scandal-mongering by the press, for one example?
MR. MANN: Yes. The focus on scandal is a distraction. We’ve got higher laws, tougher standards, more enforcement mechanisms, and norms in the media for investigative journalism, a focus on the fall of great celebrities. AndJonathan’s right, it’s largely a distraction from the nitty-gritty problems –potential conflicts of interests of governing itself. The less we hear about scandal and corruption in Congress, the better off we’ll be.
MR. ORNSTEIN: You know, one of the things that Ed brought up is certainly the case that Americans perceive the institution as riddled with arrogance and living by a set of standards that are totally unavailable to the average person. There was a long survey done
MR. WATTENBERG: But do you think that’s true?
MR. ORNSTEIN: It’s basically not true.
MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I can’t park at National Airport. There’s a nice little lot right next to the terminal that I use, and I got to go out in some satellite terminal and
MR. ORNSTEIN: That is absolutely true, but I will tell you, Ben, that the perks that you get as a scholar at a think tank are actually greater than those that the average member of Congress has. I’ve had a member of Congress
MR. WATTENBERG: Where is my swimming pool? Why don’t you tell me, Norman? I’m just curious. (Laughter.)
MR. ORNSTEIN: I won’t even talk about your dining room.
MR. WATTENBERG: Right.
MR. ORNSTEIN: I’ve had members of Congress who were shopping in a grocery store in the District–which they do as everybody else does–have people come up to them and say, ‘I didn’t know you did your own shopping or that you shopped at all.’ We had a survey that suggested that if a member of Congress had a dinner party that it would have liveried waiters and foods that most people had never tasted. But it is also the case that–which is not true. It is also that most members of Congress live middle class existences, probably little different thanmost middle managers, except for those who are millionaires.
But let me say one other thing.
MR. WATTENBERG: Quickly, though.
MR. ORNSTEIN: Americans believe that all elites in this society now–every elite, from sports to religion and everywhere else–live by a set of arrogant standards and lifestyles that are unavailable to the rest of us.
MR. WATTENBERG: Ed, go ahead.
MR. CRANE: The arrogance of other elites doesn’t approach the arrogance of most congressmen I know. But one of my favorite anecdotes is from–Jim Quain andJohn Fund did this book, ‘Cleaning House,’ and they talk about the congressional members only golf tournament that they have every year, and the awards ceremony. In a recent one, there were about 100–a little over 100 congressmen participated. They had been–in the invitation it said, ‘Have sponsors from your district give us gifts for the prizes for the tournament.’ Twenty-five hundred gifts–everything from golf bags to sweaters to crystal–were there, valued conservatively at $75,000. They had the awards ceremony
MR. WATTENBERG: And you would maintain this is kind of honest grafts?
MR. CRANE: Well, I’m just saying it’s symbolic of the arrogance
MR. WATTENBERG: Right.
MR. CRANE: –because, eventually, the awards program broke down and all the congressmen rushed the stand and were fighting with each other to get these –this happened just a couple of years ago.
MR. MANN: You know, it’s true, Ben, there was a plantation mentality on CapitolHill for a long time, where each individual member had his personal entourage and resources and made decisions as he or she saw them.
MR. WATTENBERG: Mostly he.
MR. MANN: I think that’s changed. Slowly, we’re getting a professionalization of the administration of the House. And there’s some time lag here, and some members are getting caught in the old
MR. WATTENBERG: But a typical
MR. MANN: –rules and old ways
MR. WATTENBERG: A typical
MR. MANN: –of doing business.
MR. WATTENBERG: A typical member of Congress, what, has about 25 to 30 staff members, is that right?
MR. MANN: Twenty staff members in the House. The Senate varies by the size of the state populations.
MR. WATTENBERG: And these people are, in fact–and it used to be one or two or three. I mean, you go back in American history. So, they have–and this is personal staff that you say
MR. MANN: Well, let’s be clear of personal staff.
MR. WATTENBERG: Yes. Right.
MR. MANN: What do they do? They
MR. WATTENBERG: Well, the argument is that one thing they do is micro-manage the government and get their nose into every little bit of
MR. MANN: But, Ben, the reality is, if you look at the deployment of staff, you’ll find most of those people are doing, quote, ‘constituent service.’ It’s good for their re-election campaigns, but it has relatively little to do with policy making.
MR. WATTENBERG: But from the point of view of the citizen, it is anti-demo-sclerotic. It is providing services that, Jonathan, you say, people aren’t getting.
MR. RAUCH: Just the opposite is true, Ben. I think that what’s happening
MR. WATTENBERG: See what a good question it was. (Laughter.)
MR. RAUCH: What’s happening here, a slight gloss on what Ed said earlier–I don’t think it’s the arrogance so much as people correctly perceive that this institution is not working. I don’t mean getting things done. I mean government is not solving problems. And the reason it’s not solving problems is this institution is overwhelmed with interest groups and programs which it created and is besieged by, and now cannot get rid of. It’s like a ship sinking underwater.
MR. WATTENBERG: All right. Let’s move on. The codeword for what you were talking about has been, in recent years, gridlock. And everybody said, ‘Gridlock is terrible.’ Is that what you’re talking about, that the institution is gridlocked, and that’s bad?
MR. RAUCH: Gridlock is, in fact, a myth. If you look at any objective indicators that we have, Congress is now doing more, producing more, busier than at any other time in history. The problem isn’t that things don’t get done, it’s that what does get done fails to solve problems–in fact, tends to create more problems than it solves.
MR. WATTENBERG: Well, where–I mean, conservatives could say, ‘The laws are terrible.’ Liberals could say, ‘The laws are terrible.’ Where do you put yourself on that spectrum? Why are the laws–are they too conservative, the laws? Are they too liberal?
MR. RAUCH: It’s
MR. WATTENBERG: Are they too foolish?
MR. RAUCH: It’s neither of the above. It’s the fact that you’re stuck with all of them forever. We’re basically stuck with Congress’ first try for 40 or 50years. And you cannot make a program work in a world where you’re stuck with a1935 welfare program in 1994.
MR. CRANE: See, I think that is the real gridlock. It’s not in the bills that are in Congress right now. It’s the fact that we live with everything that’s been passed. The gridlock is in this huge, vast inventory of laws. Part of the process of Congress, the log-rolling, is, you know, I’ll vote for your noxious bill if you vote for my bill that you think is noxious. But beyond that, it’s that you better not vote for anything I had passed in the past. I think that the longer you’re in Congress, the bigger the reservoir of bills that you’re protecting. And the real gridlock in Congress is this huge inventory Jonathan mentioned.
MR. ORNSTEIN: I disagree with that point–although, Jonathan has a very good point, it seems to me. He has two very good points. The first is, we are in the process, because of this self-hatred –which is the hatred of the institution going somewhat overboard–that we are
MR. WATTENBERG: You mean self-hatred? No, you don’t mean self-hatred.
MR. ORNSTEIN: Self-hatred is a hatred of the way the process has been working.
MR. WATTENBERG: But not by the congressmen. By their constituents.
MR. ORNSTEIN: No, no. By their public.
MR. WATTENBERG: Right. Yes.
MR. ORNSTEIN: By the public–that is a hatred of the institution, of purging the institution of things that have made it work. I think we’re leaning towardsa gridlock. We’re not there. But what’s happened is that members of Congress have become so ultra-sensitive because of this tremendous backlash to public opinion that they will do anything that reaches a level of unpopularity. And that means that when you do have things that are demonstrably bad, you develop constituencies for them, and we don’t change them.
MR. WATTENBERG: Norman, what exactly is wrong with a Congress that listens to the public?
MR. ORNSTEIN: That’s not
MR. WATTENBERG: I mean, I thought that was one of the things that
MR. ORNSTEIN: The public
MR. WATTENBERG: –I understood–I mean, my reading of that Constitution indicated that was one of the things they were supposed to do.
MR. MANN: Ben?
MR. ORNSTEIN: You need to read a little more deeply, Ben.
MR. MANN: Ben, you got to get to Madison.
MR. WATTENBERG: I’m sure I do. That’s why I book such experts on this show.
MR. MANN: Return to James Madison.
MR. WATTENBERG: All right.
MR. MANN: Congress was set up as a deliberative assembly. It was to refine and enlarge public views–not simply to reflect immediate public preferences, but to come together in a face to face situation and discuss problems, and try to bargain out the myriad differences in a vast society such as ours. Nowadays, it’s the external world that’s changed. The public is mobilized. Everyone is organized into a group–including the libertarians, and everyone is making demands on their individual members of Congress. They feel more vulnerable. The institution is open. And they give the public what they say they want, but not what they need.
MR. RAUCH: And, in fact, Ben, we’re not talking about the public here. We’re talking about thousands and thousands of professionalized activists and interest groups who work Congress for a living. And in fairness to the populous–Tom is right, but he might also add that Congress exploits this process by ginning up lots of bills and programs in order to shake out PAC contributions from these groups, and then go to work for them, creating new subcommittees, new chairmanships. So, it’s a two-way cycle. It’s two sides feeding each other.
MR. CRANE: But you mentioned James Madison. I mean, Madison didn’t viewCongress as the end all of the federal government. If you wanted–there was a kind of gridlock built into this system–the checks and balances; the president’s supposed to veto unconstitutional legislation or legislation he doesn’t like; the Supreme Court has completely abrogated their role as being a bulwark of our liberties, against what Madison knew were the–would be the excesses from the political branch of government.
MR. WATTENBERG: Jonathan, you have written about this. I mean, are special interests–are they good or bad? I mean, they, in fact–when you have, you know, the National Bicycle Association or the doctors or the lawyers or anyone else.
MR. ORNSTEIN: Think Tank Association of America. (Laughter.)
MR. WATTENBERG: –the Think Tank Association of America. PBS has–the public broadcasting people have
MR. ORNSTEIN: Oh, they’d never lobby. (Laughter.)
MR. WATTENBERG: They would never lobby. But they are representing people. What’s wrong with that?
MR. RAUCH: Well, that’s like saying medicine–good or bad. And the answer is, of course, any particular medicine is good, but if you use 100 of them at once, you’re going to get very sick. And that’s what’s happening. It’s not that particular groups are bad or evil–a lot of them do good things. It’s that when you’ve got thousands of them, and you’re creating thousands more every year, and they’re all descending on Washington, opening up offices and coming to CapitolHill and demanding stuff and then defending it forever, the system begins to sink.
MR. CRANE: And there’s concentrated benefits, we all know this, and diffused cost. So, you have all these special interests
MR. WATTENBERG: Now, explain that–the concentrated benefits.
MR. CRANE: Well, a program could benefit a special interest to the tune of $100million. To the average American, that’s a half a penny. So, the special interest is going to come to Washington and lobby very hard and do everything in their power to get the $100 million. You and I are not going to go to Congress to save our half a penny.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay.
MR. CRANE: And that process leads inexorably
MR. ORNSTEIN: Fifty cents, actually.
MR. CRANE: Is it? Okay, 50 cents.
MR. ORNSTEIN: I got you to rights, but go ahead.
MR. CRANE: Leads inexorably
MR. ORNSTEIN: Math was never his strong point.
MR. CRANE: –to more government growth.
MR. MANN: But that doesn’t match with the composition of the federal budget. Special interests are scapegoats. The reality is
MR. RAUCH: I agree.
MR. MANN: –that most of the budget goes to send checks to individual citizens who don’t think of themselves as part of a special interest.
MR. RAUCH: With Ben included.
MR. MANN: And the idea that we have these concentrated benefits and diffused cost which is driving the deficit, just doesn’t square with the reality of whatthe budget is.
MR. ORNSTEIN: The irony here, though, to get back to a point that Jonathan made right at the beginning of this show is, who has tended to be more resistant to the importunings of the whole range of interests, to try and pull something together that keeps them at a little bit of a distance while still using them as grease to get something through. It tends to be the old Pauls. Getting a majority out of 435 very disparate, individually, independently, empowered individuals in extremely difficult to do. And we had a system that tended to keep them at a little bit more of a distance. The reforms that have opened upthis process, and reforms that are now pushed out of a hatred for the individual members, and a zeal to remove corruption, actually open up the process to interests even more, to a much wider range, and make members more vulnerable to them, and lead to a much bigger problem than what we have had. That’s the danger here, Ben.
MR. WATTENBERG: Ed
MR. RAUCH: It’s like putting a honey pot in front of an ant hill. And Norm, I guess, now is the time to say that the politician on Capitol Hill who did the single most important thing about curtailing this problem, the Tax Reform Bill of1986, which struck away truck loads of special interest loopholes –that man wasDan Rostenkowski, and we’re about to boot him out.
MR. ORNSTEIN: And everything that he stands for–not just what he is being accused of in his indictment, but everything that he stands for as a politician is under extreme attack, when, in fact, many of the qualities that he has had are virtues in this process, we just don’t recognize.
MR. WATTENBERG: Ed Crane, if there is gridlock, and your general position is that more federal legislation just in general–because it regulates–I’ve read your recent speech. I mean, it takes away our freedom, you maintain. You must be pro-gridlock.
MR. CRANE: Yes, I don’t think the Congress should be this sort of giant bag of goodies that everyone–all the congressional districts come in and fight fortheir share. I don’t think that’s what the founders had in mind. I am against the gridlock that exists in the form of all these thousands of laws, this inventory of laws–many of which are detrimental, unless we think we have an omnipotent Congress, and that we have nothing but terrific people.
MR. WATTENBERG: Are you and Jonathan sort of on the same side of this argument?
MR. CRANE: Sometimes.
MR. WATTENBERG: Am I getting it right?
MR. RAUCH: Only occasionally.
MR. WATTENBERG: I mean Tom and Norm are on the same side, but I’m trying to
MR. RAUCH: Ed wants to shrink government. I don’t care about the size of it. I want to make it more flexible so that it can function to solve problems. But todo that, you’ve got to be able to unload lots of old stuff that’s choking it. And to do that
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay.
MR. RAUCH: –you have to get around the wall of interest groups.
MR. WATTENBERG: All right. Let’s–yes, Tom, and then I want to move on to something else.
MR. MANN: No, that just means strengthening leadership. The problems are hypersensitivity to outside interests, hyper individualism. We need to strengthen the center. A little less focus on appearances, a little more on outcomes.
MR. WATTENBERG: All right.
MR. MANN: That means giving the leaders some resources
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay.
MR. MANN: –to get the job done.
MR. WATTENBERG: Let us use that as a way to segue into this last part of this program, which is what we ought to do about it. What are the solutions? I know,Mr. Crane–I know of one of yours which you are permitted to mention briefly, which is term limits. But what–mention that, and let’s get into
MR. CRANE: Well, you know, you can
MR. WATTENBERG: Go ahead.
MR. CRANE: They’re the usual things. Get rid of the franking privilege and other things that give incumbents such an advantage. But I think one very effective reform would be a constitutional amendment to limit spending forCongress. And that would sort of allow them to fight on the merits of things, rather than this log-rolling process of everybody voting for everybody else’s bill.
And the second thing, I think, that’s critical is congressional term limitation. Eighty percent of Americans favor term limits. Congress hates the idea. But I think we need a citizen legislature. I think that’s what the founders had in mind–a representative legislature that’s in touch with the people, and not the professional politicians we have now. So, six years in the House, 12 years in the Senate. That’s the majority of the 15 states that have passed–that have limited the terms of their delegations have those constraints. I think that would get a different kind of people seeking office.
MR. WATTENBERG: What are your favorite solutions? I mean, we are agreed that there’s a problem out there in Congress Land. I mean
MR. ORNSTEIN: There’s no question that there are problems. I think that well meaning as Ed is and as his suggestions are, they would lead to exactly the opposite.
MR. WATTENBERG: And the 80 percent of the American people who approve of term limits.
MR. ORNSTEIN: Yes, 80 percent of Americans approved of term limits for a president, which I think has been a disaster. The two term limit has been bad. Limits everywhere are bad. In California, they now have term limits. Are we getting citizen legislatures coming in?
MR. CRANE: Yes.
MR. ORNSTEIN: We’re getting people squabbling over how they move to the nextstep on the ladder. You’re getting hyperambitious people, not people who are selfless and noble. And frankly, because of this climate of distrust and hatred, where the average person in public life is viewed as a leper in a colony–we’re not getting good people coming to public life at all.
MR. WATTENBERG: Do you think
MR. ORNSTEIN: So, that’s no solution to me.
MR. WATTENBERG: Do you think the public is electing some lepers and nut cases? Would you try to character
MR. ORNSTEIN: I think
MR. WATTENBERG: –characterize or name any of those people?
MR. ORNSTEIN: What is happening here is, you know, I look at most of the younger people coming into state legislatures, or the junior people–and the junior people coming into Congress, they don’t have qualities of leadership that I’ve seen in the past. They are more sensitive to every little burp in public opinion than one can imagine.
MR. WATTENBERG: Are they
MR. ORNSTEIN: They are not willing to cast tough votes, unless they think those votes will aid them politically. And they’re looking at the next step up the ladder. They are very ambitious.
MR. WATTENBERG: Ambition in Washington? My goodness, I’m shocked.
MR. ORNSTEIN: People who want term limits
MR. WATTENBERG: I’m shocked. Who’s playing God up there.
MR. ORNSTEIN: Absolutely. People who want term limits, though, Ben
MR. WATTENBERG: Yes.
MR. ORNSTEIN: –want to squeeze ambition out of the process. They want noble citizen legislatures who aren’t personally ambitious. That’s not going to happen.
MR. WATTENBERG: So, Ed, you wanted to say something about his term limit. I saw you had a
MR. CRANE: Well, he mentioned California. There are 27 freshmen in the assembly in California–14 Democrats, 13 Republicans. All but one of them in really a citizen legislature, because term limits kicked in the last election. And that has worked very well.
MR. RAUCH: And how about saying the reforms of the ’70s were a mistake. Congress worked better when there were about six people on Capitol Hill you needed to see to get things done. And start patrolling some of that stuff. Radically reduce the number of committees, the number of access points for lobbies, strengthen the chairmanship, the leadership–in effect, go back to an institution that is less accessible to lobbyists.
MR. WATTENBERG: Could I ask you each, briefly, to try to summarize for us what you think you all agree upon and what you disagree upon?
MR. CRANE: Well, I think
MR. WATTENBERG: Ed, why don’t you start.
MR. CRANE: Well, I think Norman did say Congress is perfect in its entirety, or at least it’s a wonderful institution. I think that there’s agreement that the public perception of Congress is very bad. I think there’s strong disagreement in terms of what the goals of reform should be.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay.
MR. RAUCH: I think we can go a bit further. I sense agreement here that this is an institution which is really quite sick, and that well-meaning reforms, if we’re not careful, are just going to make it worse–which is exactly what I fear right now. I think, as Ed says, we don’t agree about which way the reform sought to go, but we do have a general sense that too much access, too much openness, combined with pursuing members of Congress for every little pacadillois counterproductive. That’s making it worse.
MR. MANN: I think we agree that most of Congress’ problems result from changes in the broader political and social environment, including the mobilization of interest groups outside, and that some of the most popular reforms might do more harm than good.
MR. ORNSTEIN: That’s basically right. I think at least three of us would agree that Congress is not perfect, and, indeed, we have a list of reforms in three separate volumes that are not designed for a perfect institution. But three of us, I think, would agree that the constitutional design is what you want, and you don’t want to damage that fundamental constitutional design. Indeed, you want to return to some of the virtues that were there that we’ve gotten away from. And the danger is, as John suggested, that reforms that are well-meaning will move us further from that particular goal and not toward it.
MR. WATTENBERG: Thank you Norman Ornstein, Tom Mann, Jonathan Rauch, Ed Crane, and thank you. As you know, this is a new program, and we have appreciated hearing from you very much. Please send us your comments to the address on the screen.
For ‘Think Tank’, I’m Ben Wattenberg.
ANNOUNCER: This has been a production of BJW, Incorporated, in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.