Congress was already broken. The Coronavirus could make it worse.
By Carl Hulse
A conservative Republican House member profanely accosts a Democratic congresswoman as she strides up the Capitol steps to do her job during multiple national calamities.
With expanded jobless benefits supporting tens of millions of fearful Americans about to expire and a pandemic raging, Senate Republicans and the Trump White House cannot agree among themselves about how to respond, let alone begin to bargain with Democrats.
In a private party session, archconservative Republicans ambush their top female leader and demand her ouster over political and policy differences.
And that’s just the past few days.
By nearly any measure, Congress is a toxic mess seemingly incapable of rising to the occasion even at a time of existential threats. No one knows that better than those who, until recently, served there.
“Congress has largely become a dysfunctional institution unable to meet the critical needs of our country,” said a new report, “Congress at a Crossroads,” produced by the Association of Former Members of Congress. Scheduled to be issued publicly next week, it is a damning indictment of the steady deterioration of a congressional culture that today rewards power over progress and conflict over consensus.
And it warns that, while recent moves to allow Congress to function safely during the pandemic may be necessary, they could make things worse.
Based on 40 hours of interviews with 30 House members and a senator who left Congress after the 2018 elections after serving a combined 275 years, the report offers some hope, asserting that most lawmakers arrive on Washington yearning to be constructive.
But overall, it paints a grim portrait of an institution that has ceased to work as it should. A course correction may be more critical now than ever before, the report said, as the nation faces “outsize challenges” that place congressional shortcomings in stark relief.
“The pandemic alone is a call to our elected officials for the type of leadership and vision we expect at a moment of crisis,” said the report, which grew out of interviews conducted by Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of communication at American University, and Mark Sobol, an author and expert on organizational development and executive leadership. “But we are also facing another reckoning, one over our nation’s original sin and the racial inequities that have beset our country since its founding.”
The study ticks through familiar themes when it comes to assessing the sorry state of Congress: the lack of any real across-the-aisle relationships, a schedule that limits opportunities for interaction, too much power concentrated in leadership, constant fundraising demands, discouragement of bipartisanship, the negative influence of round-the-clock media, the fact that the most important election for lawmakers is often their primary, and the shutting out of minority-party voices.
It also warns that the shifts toward a more virtual Congress as a result of the pandemic, such as a new system of proxy voting in the House that allows lawmakers to cast their votes without traveling to Washington, could exacerbate the existing problems. If the idea of a remote Congress takes hold, the report suggests, it would be a serious setback to efforts to enhance bipartisan interaction.
“Because of the pandemic, Congress was forced to conduct much of its business virtually, and we certainly understand why,” the report said. “But as much as that may have been a necessity, it should not be interpreted as a virtue.”
The document said Congress needs “more and not less in-person interaction among members of Congress. They need to learn more about each other’s districts, hold civil conversations aimed at finding common ground, build relationships of trust that can lead understanding and solutions.”
In a week when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., was verbally assaulted without provocation by Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla.; and fellow Republicans ganged up on Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., in a hostile confrontation, the call for civility rang especially true.
At its core, the report said that the most important thing lawmakers and leaders of both parties could do was to find ways to promote more communication and understanding across the aisle.
It is a long-standing complaint about Congress that with time spent in Washington now deemed a negative, lawmakers just do not interact socially and consequently find it much easier to dismiss the other side. The disconnect has been exacerbated in recent years as the polarization intensified and Republicans and Democrats now have little contact with one another. The authors said that situation must change if there is any chance for Congress to become more functional.
“Those relationships are the secret sauce for getting things done, understanding each other and building bridges across geography and ideology,” said Steinhorn.
One lawmaker who took part in the study, former Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., said he had been struck by the concerted effort by leaders of both parties to keep the sides separated from the start, intentionally discouraging any cross-party bonding.
“I didn’t come into Congress as a novice, and the concept of partisanship was not new to me,” said Capuano, who was first elected in 1998. “But the concept of not even talking to the other side was new to me. All day long there was an intention to split you up. There was not one iota of an attempt to bring us together.”
And with the most serious challenge to a sitting lawmaker coming chiefly from a primary these days, the incentive to find common ground is vastly reduced, inhibiting the search for compromise, which has become a dirty word, politically speaking.
Recognizing the need for more communication, the report offers multiple recommendations, including encouraging lawmakers to travel as part of congressional delegations as well as for field hearings, visits to districts of lawmakers from the other party and bipartisan retreats. It also recommended more social functions and even scheduled weekend sessions of Congress to give lawmakers more time to interact.
“There is going to be no substitute for connecting with people, building relationships and staying connected,” said Sobol. “Forging relationships in action is what we are advocating.”