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What is Wrong with Congress?

Think Tank Transcripts: What's Wrong with Congress

ANNOUNCER: 'Think Tank' has been made possible by Amgen, unlocking the secretsof life through cellular and molecular biology. At Amgen, we produce medicinesthat improve people's lives today and bring hope for tomorrow.

Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, the William H.Donner Foundation, the Randolph Foundation, and the JM Foundation.

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 manyvoters angry with them?

Joining us today to sort through the conflict and the consensus are NormanOrnstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of'Renewing Congress.' Edward Crane, president of the Cato Institute and co-editorof 'Market Liberalism: A Paradigm for the 21st Century.' Thomas Mann, directorof Government Studies at the Brookings Institution and co-author of 'RenewingCongress.' And Jonathan Rauch, author of 'Demo-Sclerosis: The Silent Killer ofAmerican 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, theyshouted, 'Long live Congress.' Long live Congress? Today, many citizens areshouting at their representatives, and the battle cry sounds like, 'Off withtheir heads.' What happened? Why are these usually dedicated men and womenbeing 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 ournational legislature. Others include, check bouncing, postal fraud, sexualmisconduct, savings and loan scandals, and bribery. Polls show that publicrespect for Congress has been at an all time low.

Look, Americans rate their representatives' ethical standards even below those ofjournalists and television talk show hosts, and not much ahead of car salesmenand insurance salesmen. Why is the public so angry. Beyond the pettylaw-breaking, some say it's arrogance. Even after all the furor, congressmenstill get special perks--free mail, free parking at National Airport, andsubsidized television studios. They exempt themselves from the normalenforcement 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 specialinterest groups. Congress is also the most heavily staffed legislature in theworld. 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 itused 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. Andmany of those so-called special interest groups, remember, often speak for thepublic.

Norman Ornstein, colleague, political scientists, tennis competitor--let usbegin with you, sir. Is the Congress corrupt?

MR. ORNSTEIN: I would put myself on the side of those who would say it is farless corrupt than it has ever been. And also, we have a very ambitious studythat was just done of 24 countries--the larger, mature democracies around--looking at laws and standards regulating ethics. Which has by far the toughestand 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 corruptthan 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'sever 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. Imean, if you look at Jim Wright and Tony Qualo and Danny Rostenkowski and theKeating 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 ofCongress. There's a tremendous sense that there's a division between the--thatkind of a ruling elite has grown up in Congress, and that they don't relate tothe people.


MR. CRANE: And that's evidenced by the fact that they don't even subjectthemselves 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 peopleshould 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 inback 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 subcommitteechairman, and these guys are worried about getting indicted for parking in thewrong 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 towork for--and that's legal.

MR. WATTENBERG: Tom Mann, is it perhaps also a function of scandal-mongering bythe 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 forinvestigative 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 aboutscandal and corruption in Congress, the better off we'll be.

MR. ORNSTEIN: You know, one of the things that Ed brought up is certainly thecase that Americans perceive the institution as riddled with arrogance and livingby a set of standards that are totally unavailable to the average person. Therewas 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 littlelot right next to the terminal that I use, and I got to go out in some satelliteterminal and

MR. ORNSTEIN: That is absolutely true, but I will tell you, Ben, that the perksthat you get as a scholar at a think tank are actually greater than those thatthe 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'mjust curious. (Laughter.)

MR. ORNSTEIN: I won't even talk about your dining room.


MR. ORNSTEIN: I've had members of Congress who were shopping in a grocery storein the District--which they do as everybody else does--have people come up tothem and say, 'I didn't know you did your own shopping or that you shopped atall.' We had a survey that suggested that if a member of Congress had a dinnerparty that it would have liveried waiters and foods that most people had nevertasted. But it is also the case that--which is not true. It is also that mostmembers 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--everyelite, from sports to religion and everywhere else--live by a set of arrogantstandards 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 mostcongressmen I know. But one of my favorite anecdotes is from--Jim Quain andJohn Fund did this book, 'Cleaning House,' and they talk about the congressionalmembers only golf tournament that they have every year, and the awards ceremony. In a recent one, there were about 100--a little over 100 congressmenparticipated. They had been--in the invitation it said, 'Have sponsors fromyour district give us gifts for the prizes for the tournament.' Twenty-fivehundred 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. CRANE: --because, eventually, the awards program broke down and all thecongressmen 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 andresources 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 professionalizationof the administration of the House. And there's some time lag here, and somemembers are getting caught in the old

MR. WATTENBERG: But a typical

MR. MANN: --rules and old ways


MR. MANN: --of doing business.

MR. WATTENBERG: A typical member of Congress, what, has about 25 to 30 staffmembers, is that right?

MR. MANN: Twenty staff members in the House. The Senate varies by the size ofthe state populations.

MR. WATTENBERG: And these people are, in fact--and it used to be one or two orthree. I mean, you go back in American history. So, they have--and this ispersonal staff that you say

MR. MANN: Well, let's be clear of personal staff.


MR. MANN: What do they do? They

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, the argument is that one thing they do is micro-manage thegovernment 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'sgood for their re-election campaigns, but it has relatively little to do withpolicy making.

MR. WATTENBERG: But from the point of view of the citizen, it isanti-demo-sclerotic. It is providing services that, Jonathan, you say, peoplearen'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--Idon't think it's the arrogance so much as people correctly perceive that thisinstitution is not working. I don't mean getting things done. I mean governmentis not solving problems. And the reason it's not solving problems is thisinstitution is overwhelmed with interest groups and programs which it created andis 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 weretalking about has been, in recent years, gridlock. And everybody said, 'Gridlockis terrible.' Is that what you're talking about, that the institution isgridlocked, and that's bad?

MR. RAUCH: Gridlock is, in fact, a myth. If you look at any objectiveindicators that we have, Congress is now doing more, producing more, busier thanat any other time in history. The problem isn't that things don't get done, it'sthat what does get done fails to solve problems--in fact, tends to create moreproblems than it solves.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, where--I mean, conservatives could say, 'The laws areterrible.' Liberals could say, 'The laws are terrible.' Where do you putyourself on that spectrum? Why are the laws--are they too conservative, thelaws? Are they too liberal?


MR. WATTENBERG: Are they too foolish?

MR. RAUCH: It's neither of the above. It's the fact that you're stuck with allof 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 thatare in Congress right now. It's the fact that we live with everything that'sbeen passed. The gridlock is in this huge, vast inventory of laws. Part of theprocess of Congress, the log-rolling, is, you know, I'll vote for your noxiousbill if you vote for my bill that you think is noxious. But beyond that, it'sthat you better not vote for anything I had passed in the past. I think that thelonger you're in Congress, the bigger the reservoir of bills that you'reprotecting. And the real gridlock in Congress is this huge inventory Jonathanmentioned.

MR. ORNSTEIN: I disagree with that point--although, Jonathan has a very goodpoint, it seems to me. He has two very good points. The first is, we are in theprocess, because of this self-hatred --which is the hatred of the institutiongoing 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. ORNSTEIN: By the public--that is a hatred of the institution, of purgingthe 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 Congresshave become so ultra-sensitive because of this tremendous backlash to publicopinion that they will do anything that reaches a level of unpopularity. Andthat means that when you do have things that are demonstrably bad, you developconstituencies for them, and we don't change them.

MR. WATTENBERG: Norman, what exactly is wrong with a Congress that listens tothe 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 Constitutionindicated 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 andenlarge public views--not simply to reflect immediate public preferences, butto come together in a face to face situation and discuss problems, and try tobargain out the myriad differences in a vast society such as ours. Nowadays, it'sthe external world that's changed. The public is mobilized. Everyone isorganized into a group--including the libertarians, and everyone is makingdemands on their individual members of Congress. They feel more vulnerable. Theinstitution is open. And they give the public what they say they want, but notwhat they need.

MR. RAUCH: And, in fact, Ben, we're not talking about the public here. We'retalking about thousands and thousands of professionalized activists and interestgroups who work Congress for a living. And in fairness to the populous--Tom isright, but he might also add that Congress exploits this process by ginning uplots of bills and programs in order to shake out PAC contributions from thesegroups, and then go to work for them, creating new subcommittees, newchairmanships. 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 akind of gridlock built into this system--the checks and balances; thepresident's supposed to veto unconstitutional legislation or legislation hedoesn't like; the Supreme Court has completely abrogated their role as being abulwark of our liberties, against what Madison knew were the--would be theexcesses from the political branch of government.

MR. WATTENBERG: Jonathan, you have written about this. I mean, are specialinterests--are they good or bad? I mean, they, in fact--when you have, youknow, the National Bicycle Association or the doctors or the lawyers or anyoneelse

MR. ORNSTEIN: Think Tank Association of America. (Laughter.)

MR. WATTENBERG: --the Think Tank Association of America. PBS has--the publicbroadcasting 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 thatparticular groups are bad or evil--a lot of them do good things. It's that whenyou've got thousands of them, and you're creating thousands more every year, andthey're all descending on Washington, opening up offices and coming to CapitolHill and demanding stuff and then defending it forever, the system begins tosink.

MR. CRANE: And there's concentrated benefits, we all know this, and diffusedcost. 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 specialinterest is going to come to Washington and lobby very hard and do everything intheir power to get the $100 million. You and I are not going to go to Congressto save our half a penny.


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 citizenswho 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 diffusedcost 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 maderight at the beginning of this show is, who has tended to be more resistant tothe importunings of the whole range of interests, to try and pull somethingtogether that keeps them at a little bit of a distance while still using them asgrease to get something through. It tends to be the old Pauls. Getting amajority out of 435 very disparate, individually, independently, empoweredindividuals in extremely difficult to do. And we had a system that tended tokeep 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 individualmembers, and a zeal to remove corruption, actually open up the process tointerests even more, to a much wider range, and make members more vulnerable tothem, and lead to a much bigger problem than what we have had. That's the dangerhere, Ben.


MR. RAUCH: It's like putting a honey pot in front of an ant hill. And Norm, Iguess, now is the time to say that the politician on Capitol Hill who did thesingle 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 beingaccused of in his indictment, but everything that he stands for as a politicianis under extreme attack, when, in fact, many of the qualities that he has had arevirtues in this process, we just don't recognize.

MR. WATTENBERG: Ed Crane, if there is gridlock, and your general position isthat more federal legislation just in general--because it regulates--I'veread your recent speech. I mean, it takes away our freedom, you maintain. Youmust be pro-gridlock.

MR. CRANE: Yes, I don't think the Congress should be this sort of giant bag ofgoodies 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 againstthe gridlock that exists in the form of all these thousands of laws, thisinventory of laws--many of which are detrimental, unless we think we have anomnipotent 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. Iwant 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. 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 tosomething else.

MR. MANN: No, that just means strengthening leadership. The problems arehypersensitivity to outside interests, hyperindividualism. We need to strengthenthe 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. MANN: --to get the job done.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let us use that as a way to segue into this last part of thisprogram, 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. CRANE: They're the usual things. Get rid of the franking privilege andother things that give incumbents such an advantage. But I think one veryeffective 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'sbill.

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 Ithink we need a citizen legislature. I think that's what the founders had inmind--a representative legislature that's in touch with the people, and not theprofessional politicians we have now. So, six years in the House, 12 years inthe Senate. That's the majority of the 15 states that have passed--that havelimited the terms of their delegations have those constraints. I think thatwould get a different kind of people seeking office.

MR. WATTENBERG: What are your favorite solutions? I mean, we are agreed thatthere's a problem out there in Congress Land. I mean

MR. ORNSTEIN: There's no question that there are problems. I think that wellmeaning as Ed is and as his suggestions are, they would lead to exactly theopposite.

MR. WATTENBERG: And the 80 percent of the American people who approve of termlimits.

MR. ORNSTEIN: Yes, 80 percent of Americans approved of term limits for apresident, 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 wegetting citizen legislatures coming in?


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 areselfless 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'renot 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. WATTENBERG: --characterize or name any of those people?

MR. ORNSTEIN: What is happening here is, you know, I look at most of the youngerpeople coming into state legislatures, or the junior people--and the juniorpeople coming into Congress, they don't have qualities of leadership that I'veseen in the past. They are more sensitive to every little burp in public opinionthan one can imagine.


MR. ORNSTEIN: They are not willing to cast tough votes, unless they think thosevotes will aid them politically. And they're looking at the next step up theladder. 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. ORNSTEIN: --want to squeeze ambition out of the process. They want noblecitizen legislatures who aren't personally ambitious. That's not going tohappen.

MR. WATTENBERG: So, Ed, you wanted to say something about his term limit. I sawyou had a

MR. CRANE: Well, he mentioned California. There are 27 freshmen in the assemblyin California--14 Democrats, 13 Republicans. All but one of them in really acitizen legislature, because term limits kicked in the last election. And thathas 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 youneeded to see to get things done. And start patrolling some of that stuff. Radically reduce the number of committees, the number of access points forlobbies, strengthen the chairmanship, the leadership--in effect, go back to aninstitution that is less accessible to lobbyists.

MR. WATTENBERG: Could I ask you each, briefly, to try to summarize for us whatyou 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, orat least it's a wonderful institution. I think that there's agreement that thepublic perception of Congress is very bad. I think there's strong disagreement interms of what the goals of reform should be.


MR. RAUCH: I think we can go a bit further. I sense agreement here that this isan institution which is really quite sick, and that well-meaning reforms, ifwe're not careful, are just going to make it worse--which is exactly what Ifear right now. I think, as Ed says, we don't agree about which way the reformsought to go, but we do have a general sense that too much access, too muchopenness, 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 changesin the broader political and social environment, including the mobilization ofinterest groups outside, and that some of the most popular reforms might do moreharm than good.

MR. ORNSTEIN: That's basically right. I think at least three of us would agreethat Congress is not perfect, and, indeed, we have a list of reforms in threeseparate volumes that are not designed for a perfect institution. But three ofus, I think, would agree that the constitutional design is what you want, and youdon't want to damage that fundamental constitutional design. Indeed, you want toreturn to some of the virtues that were there that we've gotten away from. Andthe danger is, as John suggested, that reforms that are well-meaning will move usfurther 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 appreciatedhearing from you very much. Please send us your comments to the address on thescreen.

For 'Think Tank', I'm Ben Wattenberg.

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