Congress is broken. This little piece of political analysis is a favorite of the chattering class. But do things look so bad to someone on the inside? At least to Representative Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), they do.
Cooper first won election to the House of Representatives in 1982. Congress was very different then, he remembers, “imperfect but functional.” Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) saw himself as leader of the entire House, not just the Democratic caucus. “O’Neill’s was a House intent on making policy, not partisan mischief,” Cooper recalls. He left the wrangling over vote tallies to the majority and minority leaders and, in the end, members were “expected to vote their conscience and their district.” Representatives were thought of as party loyalists if they voted their party’s line 70 or 80 percent of the time.
In those good old days, a group of elite staffers known as the Democratic Study Group provided authoritative memos before each important vote listing the pros and cons of the bill. The quality of these reports was so high that even some Republicans subscribed.
Members from both sides of the aisle would often interact socially outside work. They brought their families to live with them in Washington, D.C. Few representatives were members of what O’Neill called the “Tuesday-Thursday Club”—those who went to their districts over the weekend to see their families and constituents.
All this changed in the 1990s under the leadership of Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Cooper says. Gingrich centralized power in the office of the Speaker and politicized the position. Committee chairs, powerful under O’Neill, were “emasculated, their authority redirected to the Speaker.” Gingrich told incoming Republican members not to move their families to town; he wanted everyone home campaigning on weekends. “Soon everyone belonged to the Tuesday-Thursday Club. Members became strangers, the easier for them to fight.” The Democratic Study Group ceased to exist.
When Democrats recaptured the House in 2006, they “quietly adopted” the changes. Freshman Democrats knew no other way. “The truth is that the [Gingrich] model works . . . if you are only interested in partisan control of Congress.”
Cooper agrees that two pet causes of reformers—limiting gerrymandering and restricting corporate political spending—would help, but deeper reform is needed. He calls for changing how members of Congress are paid—tying their compensation to performance. He recommends paying members a commission for cutting spending or repealing obsolete laws. The details of such a proposal would be contentious, but “surely there’s a way to measure and reward high-quality legislative work.”
Congress has gone through other periods of decline and has always bounced back. But this time is different because, as the world’s only superpower, the United States has less room for error, Cooper says.