Today on The Cycle: The dysfunction of the U.S. Congress

Updated
Dangerous Convictions jacket
Dangerous Convictions jacket

It came down to the wire for the 112th Congress to reach a fiscal cliff deal. The fiasco with the fis al cliff is a prime example of the dysfunction of the 112th Congress. So, with the 113th Congress officially being sworn in January 3rd, many people are asking will this Congress do any better than unproductive 112th Congress?

Former Democratic Congressman Tom Allen joins the conversation during today’s guest spot to discuss his book Dangerous Convictions: What’s Really Wrong With the U.S. Congress. Tom Allen knows firsthand about the Congressional dysfunction. He argues that what is really wrong with Congress is the widening conflict in worldviews that leaves both the Republican and Democratic parties unable to understand how the other thinks about what people should do on their own and what we should be doing together.

Be sure to tune in at 3:30 p.m. for the full conversation with Tom Allen and check out an excerpt from his book below.

I didn’t know what to expect. Although I had been involved in politics and government for most of my life, winning a seat in Congress was not part of any life plan. After leaving the practice of law after nineteen years to run for governor of Maine, and losing in the Democratic primary in 1994, I entered the race for the First Congressional District primarily because a conservative Republican had been swept into office in 1994 on the Newt Gingrich tide, and I thought I could help reverse it. It was a second and probably last chance for major political office. I had never served in the state legislature; my elected experience was limited to the nonpartisan Portland City Council.

Ten days aft er the 1996 election, I traveled to Washington for orientation sessions and organizational meetings. Twenty-six years earlier,George J. Mitchell, then a young Maine lawyer, had hired me to work for Sen. Ed Muskie (D-ME); both men remain models for me of the highest level of public service. In 1970–71 I had spent about eight months in Washington divided between Ed Muskie’s senatorial offi ce and his presidential campaign. That was a different era, one with limited lessons for the Early Lessons in Congress 11 increasingly polarized climate gripping the White House and Congressin the mid-1990s.

During our first freshman orientation meeting, Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House, cautioned us not to become jaded or self-satisfi ed:“If you ever find that you can walk by the Capitol Dome all lit up at night and not be moved, then it’s time to leave.” Dick Gephardt, the Democratic leader, told us that we had two jobs—one in Washington working on legislation,and the other in our district meeting with constituents, either of which could consume all our waking hours. Our challenge was to perform both well and still carve out some time for our families.

The orientation sessions by the Congressional Research Service, then on partisan research arm of the Library of Congress, attracted many Republican and Democratic participants. Along with other programs,the party divisions were already apparent. In fairness, we had come to Washington with different agendas, so it was not that surprising that more Democrats attended the Kennedy School center-left orientation and more Republicans went to the center-right Heritage Foundation program.

New members plunge into a world of constant motion with few pauses for rest or reflection. Th e tasks seem infinite: setting up offices in DC and the home district, hiring staff in both places, creating systems to respond to mail and phone calls from constituents, learning the legislative ropes,meeting with constituent groups, giving speeches back home to Chambers of Commerce, Rotaries, and other groups, holding forums on the issues of the day, visiting businesses, retirement communities, and so on.

The travel schedule is daunting, but it quickly (for those with manageable commutes  becomes routine. Most members are in DC on the days we vote and back home or on the road the days we don’t. In Washington,I would start most days with a 6 a.m. workout in the House gym, attendant 8 a.m. gathering, such as an Aspen Institute breakfast on a currenttopic, the informal Democratic Budget Group on Wednesday, or my Faith and Politics Reflection Group on Thursday. Th e rest of the day would befi lled with committee hearings, discussions with staff , press calls, meetings with constituents, fl oor votes throughout the day, brief appearances Sat receptions in the evening, and more work and reading in the office until about 10 or 10:30 at night.

Democrats and Republicans staked out different territories, physically and philosophically. We saw each other on the floor and in committee hearing rooms but usually sat on opposite sides of the chamber. We shared a small gym in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building, and once we had more than one television, Democrats watched CNN while Republicans took in Fox News. We talked in offi ce hallways and on the sidewalk or tunnels in hurried sprints to vote in the Capitol, but longer conversations were less common. Th e more senior members remembered the old days of bipartisan socializing at night and on weekends, but most of us returned to our districts and families as soon as votes were done for the week.

I came to Congress with great hope and little experience. For a freshman in Congress, the big picture is easily lost in the intense swirl of daily decisions  which bills to support, people to see, speeches to give, alliances to build, votes to cast, explanations to present, press releases to send. Decisions had to be made and votes taken—always—with incomplete information about substance and, of course, the future reactions of people back home.

Over time I learned—from Bosnia, the Clinton impeachment, 9/11,Afghanistan, Iraq, and the economic recession—that members of Congress are swept along by forces in the world that they, as individuals,cannot control. Th e unpredictable forces include foreign and domestic crises, popular movements, and party leadership choices. We react much of the time and have to fi ght to make space for personal legislative initiatives.

Serving in Congress is breathtakingly complex and all-consuming.Only with experience did I learn to decode much of what I regularly sawand heard, for the daily debates covered layers of largely unexamined attitudes,ideas, and convictions that shape the partisan struggle. Some of theconvictions are dangerous because they drive public policy in directions that make little moral or economic sense.

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Today on The Cycle: The dysfunction of the U.S. Congress

Updated