Center for American Progress

Mending the Broken Branch: Strategies for Restoring the Constitutional Role of the U.S. Congress

Mending the Broken Branch: Strategies for Restoring the Constitutional Role of the U.S. Congress

Congress is failing to meet its key responsibilities in our democratic system and improvements will only come from re-examining the fundamental role of the legislative branch in our society. That is the conclusion reached by a new book by Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, presented on July 28 at a panel discussion hosted by the Center for American Progress.

The panel featured the two authors: Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Thomas Mann, Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. They were joined by Rep. Dave Obey of Wisconsin, and Scott Lilly, a Senior Fellow at CAP, moderated the event.

The panel began by surveying recently developed Congressional short-comings. “We think the first branch has lost its way,” Mann said. Obey added that “we’ve gotten a lot wrong the last few years in Congress.” Citing pressures from a polarized partisan climate and a political process overwhelmingly influenced by campaign fundraising, the panelists said that Congress has failed to execute its core functions. Mann pointed to a “sharp decline in the quality and quantity of deliberation,” and Ornstein observed “an ethical climate that I think is abysmal.” Obey continued by lamenting “a pitiful level of oversight.” Congress, it was agreed, has succumbed to questionable ethical practices, warped the legislative process, and failed to properly check the executive branch.

Ornstein emphasized that the current problems are not the typical inefficiencies and difficulties of Congress. Describing the country as “at a crossroads,” he said the U.S. is facing immensely important decisions both domestically and abroad. “This is the worst possible time to have a dysfunctional political system, and Congress is dysfunctional,” he said. “A dysfunctional process leads to bad policy and a bad government. Lots of people in this country and abroad are suffering.”

The panelists offered a range of potential solutions. Some legislative steps can be taken to improve the situation, including longer sessions to give time for deliberation, a stronger ethics process, and the addition of rules that encourage transparency. Ornstein said progress can be made by “simply enforcing the rules and the spirit of the rules.” Obey added that “you cannot fix this problem short of radical reform in campaign finance.”

But, as Mann said, “the roots of the problem are planted in the broader body politic=” Changing Congress will be a long and hard process, said Ornstein; “we’ve got to start thinking in big terms” about the fundamental role of Congress in our society. Government is becoming more about competing parties and less about competing branches, with politicians “far more interested in getting and maintaining power than having principles and building institutions,” Ornstein said.

The panelists agreed that the country would be better served by a more open, accountable, and self-respecting Congress. There a number of ways to move in that direction—some easier than others—but all agreed that little will change unless the public demands it. As complicated as this issue can be, for Obey there is a simple bottom line in a democracy: “It all comes down to the kind of people we elect to office.”

View event transcript and videos:


Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. He also serves as an election analyst for CBS News and writes a weekly column called "Congress Inside Out" for Roll Call newspaper. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, as well as other major publications, and regularly appears on television programs like “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” “Nightline,” and “The Charlie Rose Show.” He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the Campaign Legal Center, and the Board of Trustees of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; Intensive Care: How Congress Shapes Health Policy, both with Thomas E. Mann; and Debt and Taxes: How America Got Into Its Budget Mess and What to Do About It, with John H. Makin.

Thomas E. Mann is the W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. Between 1987 and 1999, he was Director of Governmental Studies at Brookings. Before that, Mann was Executive Director of the American Political Science Association. He earned his B.A. in political science at the University of Florida and his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. Mann has taught at Princeton University, Johns Hopkins University, Georgetown University, the University of Virginia, and American University; conducted polls for congressional candidates; worked as a consultant to IBM and the Public Broadcasting Service; chaired the Board of Overseers of the National Election Studies; and served as an expert witness in the constitutional defense of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. Mann's published works include: Unsafe at Any Margin: Interpreting Congressional Elections; Vital Statistics on Congress; The New Congress; A Question of Balance: The President, the Congress and Foreign Policy; Media Polls in American Politics; Renewing Congress; Congress, the Press, and the Public; Intensive Care: How Congress Shapes Health Policy; Campaign Finance Reform: A Sourcebook; The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; Inside the Campaign Finance Battle: Court Testimony on the New Reforms; The New Campaign Finance Sourcebook; and Party Lines: Competition, Partisanship and Congressional Redistricting.

The Honorable Dave Obey (D-WI) is co-author of legislation introduced earlier this year to revise House Rules and end many of the abuses of power identified in the analysis by Ornstein and Mann. Since Obey was first elected to the House in 1969, he has been an active reformer. He was a member of a coalition in 1974 that changed the House Democratic Caucus Rules to make the Committee Chairman accountable. In addition, Obey was personally responsible for the revising of rules that extended that requirement of accountability to the subcommittee chairmen on the Appropriations Committee. In 1976, he was appointed by Speaker O'Neil to head the House Commission on Administrative Review which became known as the "Obey Commission" and enacted wide-ranging changes in the rules governing ethical conduct of members of Congress, including limitations on outside income. In 1994 Obey became Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and based on his strong bipartisan leadership, the Committee was able to enact funding for all portions of the federal government before the beginning of the next fiscal year for the first time in more than 50 years.

Scott Lilly is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress who writes and conducts research in wide range of areas including governance, federal budgeting, national security, and the economy. He joined the Center in March of 2004 after 31 years of service with the United States Congress. He served in a number of capacities including Clerk and Staff Director of the House Appropriations Committee, Minority Staff Director of that Committee, and Executive Director of the House Democratic Study Group. During his career, he has been engaged in a wide array of policy matters ranging across the entire spectrum of government activities. These have included counterterrorism, homeland security, efforts to reform American schools, and the financing of federal scientific activities. He has worked on various efforts to reform the legislative process in Congress and served as a political and legislative strategist to the Democratic members of the Appropriations Committee and the House Democratic Leadership.

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