Dana Carvey had a character during his years on Saturday Night Live who was a crotchety old man complaining about how much better everything was "in my day," the imagined halcyon times of his past. After almost 42 years immersed in the politics of Congress, I have to check myself regularly to avoid falling into the same trap. When I came to Washington in 1969, for example, the city was riven with division and antagonism over the Vietnam War, which segued into the impeachment of a president, followed by many other difficult and contentious moments. In this case, though, Carvey's old man would be right: The hard reality is that for all their rancor, those times were more functional, or at least considerably less dysfunctional, than what we face with Congress today.
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In 2006, I wrote a book with the Brookings Institution's Tom Mann called The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, in which we reflected on the high level of dysfunction in Congress that had been building since the 1990s. From the Clinton years through the middle of George W. Bush's second term, partisan division had been accompanied by a growing ideological gulf in Congress, and along with it had come a decline in institutional loyalty and other norms, the near disappearance of meaningful debate and deliberation, and a sharp decline in the "regular order," the adherence to and respect for the rules and procedures that normally operated in the legislative body.
Two years later, we wrote a second edition to reflect the change that had come with the return of Democratic leadership to Congress, noting at least some marginal areas of improvement, albeit within the larger context of continued dysfunctionality. We were hopeful that Barack Obama's sweeping victory in 2008, along with the robust gains for his party in both houses of Congress -- a sharp contrast with the controversial 2000 presidential election and the razor-thin margins in Congress that followed -- might bring a return to more functional government and a proud and functioning First Branch. That did not mean a supine and kneejerk Congress bending to the will of the president, but one vigorously asserting its independent role, through oversight and other means.
Quite obviously, that didn't happen. Three years after publishing the second edition we could write a third, entitled The Far More Broken Branch. Yes, the 111th Congress, during the first two years of the Obama presidency, produced an impressive spate of major legislative accomplishments, from a stimulus package to a sweeping health-care reform bill to major financial regulatory reform. But all were passed after contentious, drawn-out, partisan battles that left most Americans less than happy with the outcomes. And look what we have now: a long-term debt disaster with viable bipartisan solutions on the table but ignored or cast aside in Congress; an impasse over the usually perfunctory matter of raising the statutory debt limit placing the United States in jeopardy of its first-ever default; sniping and guerrilla warfare over two major policy steps enacted in the last Congress, health-care reform and financial regulation; no serious action or movement on climate change, jobs, or the continuing mortgage crisis; and major trade deals stalled yet again despite bipartisan and presidential support.