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Dysfunctional Congress is becoming a political issue

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 27, 2011 - WASHINGTON - The House blames the Senate, and vice versa. Republicans blame liberal Democrats, who point fingers at GOP "extremists." The White House blames a "dysfunctional Congress" -- a label that resonates with many on Capitol Hill.

And very little is getting accomplished in the 112th Congress.

It's no wonder that surveys find record low approval ratings for this Congress: according to one poll, lower than public approval for the BP oil spill, polygamy and pornography. Nearing its halfway point, the 112th Congress has been the least popular Congress in the era of public-opinion surveys.

While last week's standoff over extending the payroll tax cut was finally settled Friday with a short-term deal, analysts say the dysfunction in this Congress has been building all year. Many lawmakers agree.

"The Congress is almost totally dysfunctional right now," Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told CNN last week. "All we've done this year, my first year in the Senate, and I'm in the minority in the Senate, is barely keep the doors open."

That's a bit of an exaggeration, but Blunt -- a former member of the House leadership who was recently elected to the Senate's fifth-highest GOP leadership post â-- has been a persistent critic of the Senate.

Last January, Blunt said he remarked to a more senior senator, "Boy, it really seems slow over here to me." His colleague responded: "It's slow until we get to 'glacially slow.'"

Blunt is frustrated partly because he is in the Senate minority, but some Democrats also complain. At a news conference this month to discuss a bipartisan bill, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said that she and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, often mutter the same phrase when they pass each other in the hall: "This place is driving me crazy."

On the House side of the Capitol, many Democrats complain that the majority Republican leadership has been forced to take uncompromising positions by tea party-backed freshmen and other conservatives.

"Folks in Missouri are very frustrated with this process. They expect us to work together and create jobs -- and do so for the good of the country," said Russ Carnahan, a St. Louis Democrat who is often frustrated by conservatives unwilling to compromise. "I think it's high time that people started looking at what's best for the country here."

But Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, and many other GOP House members complain that, despite their success in getting conservative bills passed in the House, they too often stall in the Senate. But when the Senate acts, there can also be conflicts. Last week, Akin accused House and Senate GOP leaders of "political expediency" in agreeing to a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut, rather than the House-passed one-year extension.

And freshman Rep. Billy Long, R-Springfield, an Ozarks auctioneer who was elected with tea party support, says he was startled by how many lawmakers are obsessed with one main goal: getting re-elected.

"I'm fed up (because) nobody wants to do anything up here except get re-elected," Long told the Springfield News-Leader. "That's all they care about."

Public Dismay with Capitol Hill Antics

Last summer, the frustrating inability of congressional factions to reach agreement on how to reduce the budget deficit badly damaged U.S. economic credibility around the world.

After a weak deal was finally cut in August -- offering a blueprint for some cuts but punting the tough decision to a dozen-member congressional "super committee" -- some hope glimmered that Congress was getting serious about the deficit.

But shortly before its Thanksgiving deadline, the super committee gave up, unable to resolve the nagging disputes over taxes and entitlements that have long split Republicans and Democrats.

That high-profile failure was only one factor contributing to the plummeting public regard of Congress. This fall, a scathing report on "60 Minutes" alleged that several lawmakers -- including Boehner and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. -- had been trading in stocks and options with knowledge of inside information.

Trying to patch over that problem, the House Financial Services Committee's chairman, Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., sponsored a bill called the "STOCK Act," which aimed to stop such insider trading. And, of course, Bachus was one of the lawmakers whose questionable stock trades were exposed in the "60 Minutes" report.

With Capitol Hill awash in such negative media reports, Congress is ending the year with a dismal approval rating, measured by Gallup at about 11 percent. That's the lowest congressional rating in the 30 years that Gallup has been asking Americans to rate them. The yearly average for 2011 is a 17 percent approval rating -- the lowest annual congressional approval rating in Gallup history.

The Gallup survey is hardly a fluke. On Dec. 1, the latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that a mere 6 percent of likely U.S. voters rate the job Congress is doing as good or excellent. A whopping 68 percent rated Congress' job performance as poor. The rating for Congress matched the lowest levels ever recorded in Rasmussen surveys, and a solid plurality of those questioned said they believed that most members of Congress are corrupt.

Public regard of Congress has seldom been particularly good, but the current contempt is unusually bad. For example, then Democrats controlled both the House and Senate from January 2007 through December 2010, the opinion of Congress was poor, but not as low as it is now. During that period, the "good" or "excellent" ratings of Congress ranged from about 9 percent to 27 percent -- falling most of the time in the low teens.

Policy Divides, Procedural Roadblocks

In some ways, the paralysis in Congress is a reflection of the deep divide that separates the nation's two main political parties and their congressional leaders.

Washington University professor Steven Smith, who delivered a series of lectures this fall on "The Dysfunctional Senate," said the super committee's lack of progress "was not so much the failure of the 12 members of the committee as it is of their leaders and parent parties."

Smith told the Beacon's Jo Mannies that the underlying reason for the failure is that "last summer, those party leaders failed to find a combination of policies that can satisfy most House Republicans and Senate Democrats -- and that has not changed."

Another roadblock to action is the Senate filibuster, which allows a minority of 41 senators to block measures supported by a majority. A year ago, there were discussions about limiting filibusters by changing Senate rules. But it didn't happen -- frustrating many Democrats who can get a majority of votes on bills, but not the 60 votes needed to stop a threatened filibuster.

"There comes a time -- and we have reached it -- when we need to have the political will in a bipartisan fashion to deal with our country's problems," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the second-ranking Senate Democrat. "Whether it's a tax cut, extending the government's life into the next fiscal year, or dealing with our long-term deficit. It takes political will, maybe even political courage."

But such courage has been lacking on both sides of the aisle, many analysts say. Bob Schieffer, who has reported on Congress over four decades and who anchors CBS's Face the Nation, wrote recently that this Congress is "totally dysfunctional."

"I think we'll see a wholesale turnover in the Congress," Schieffer wrote. "I think we'll see more incumbents turned out of office, both Republicans and Democrats, than in any time since I've been in Washington -- and that's been a long time."

Among the many lawmakers who will be swimming against the anti-incumbent current in 2012 is McCaskill, who has faced a barrage of GOP criticism for backing key parts of President Barack Obama's legislative agenda.

But McCaskill, who has spent much of this year focusing on nonpartisan, good-government issues and jointly sponsoring bills with Senate Republicans, tells reporters that she is less worried about her links to Obama than about Missourians' low public opinion of Congress and their anti-incumbent attitude.

"I think I've got a much bigger problem being part of a dysfunctional body than (being associated with) the president, who has worked very hard in a difficult environment," she said earlier this month.

Divided Control of House, Senate

Part of the problem, of course, is that Democrats control the Senate while Republicans have a solid majority in the House. That split is deeper because there are enough Republicans in the Senate to block any bill by means of the filibuster threat.

That tension is heightened by the fact that the influential bloc of GOP House freshman — many of them aligned with the tea party and unwilling to compromise on spending and tax issues — has forced Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to become more combative and less willing to compromise.

"It's like an alternate universe over there," one Senate staffer said this month. "There's lots of hearings and votes — but the House bills die over here."

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.: Congress would do more if one party controlled both houses.

Blunt, for one, thinks that Congress would be able to do more if voters give Republicans a Senate majority, and retain the House control, as a result of next fall's elections.

"I think people want to get something done in Washington," Blunt told journalists this month. "If we can't get it done next year, they certainly want to be able to get it done" after the 2012 election. "This dysfunctional Senate is an embarrassment to the country and to the Constitution."

Blunt, who held leadership positions in the House when the GOP was both in the majority and in the minority, said that being in the majority should change the approach. "From Day One, you've got to be thinking about: How do we get a bill that passes both the House and Senate?" he said. "How do we get a bill that the most moderate Republican senator would vote for, if you only have 51 senators and 218 House members?"

In fact, Blunt believes that one of the "important factors" that helped him garner enough GOP support for a Senate leadership post this month was his "ability to work with the House, to understand the rules of the House, and the relationships with the leaders and the leadership staff in the House that are unique to me" because of his previous leadership experience in the House.

Has the Tea Party Blocked Progress?

But things have changed since Blunt left the House last year. In the same election that catapulted him into the Senate, the tea party helped boost a record number of House GOP freshmen into the mix and also exerted influence in some Senate races.

In fact, the conservative but pragmatic Blunt was opposed by the tea party faction of the GOP when he ran for a leadership post this month.

of Congress supported by the tea party have by-and-large declined to compromise.

While Blunt sought to play down the party division, some tea party activists were upset that the GOP senators went with an establishment lawmaker rather than their favored candidate, Sen. Rob Johnson, R-Wis., a businessman with strong tea party backing who was elected to the Senate last year with no previous legislative experience.

After the closed-door vote, Johnson told journalists that he was "disappointed with the result. I think it would have been very helpful to have that kind of independent voice" in the Senate GOP leadership. Some tea party groups went further, leading to a headline in a Capitol Hill newspaper: "Tea party angered by Blunt's win."

The GOP's tea party wing has a much stronger voice in the House, where the freshman GOP bloc — including Long, Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, Mo., and Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-East Moline, Ill. — has influenced Republican leaders to the point at which Boehner has at times been at his wit's end.

That internal division in the House GOP was clear during last week's payroll tax debacle, when Boehner initially went along with fiscal conservatives who rejected the Senate's compromise extension. But, facing tremendous political pressure from across the country, Boehner reversed his position Thursday, capitulating to the Senate position.

That "cave in" angered many GOP conservatives, including Akin, who said he was "disappointed that our Republican leadership in both the House and Senate chose a course of political expediency rather than standing on conservative principle."

Obama and Democrats praised them, but Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., faced withering criticism from tea party ranks. Some of the online headlines after Boehner's reversal highlighted the rift in GOP ranks:

"GOP caves to Obama on payroll tax," said Politico. The Washington Post ("Payroll tax deal represents GOP capitulation") was similar to the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune headline, "House GOP leaders yield on payroll tax." The Reuters news service went with, "Boehner surrenders in tax showdown," while the Huffington Post rubbed it in, with the headline: "UNCLE ... House GOP Caves on Payroll Taxes."

Coming to Boehner's defense was Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, who, along with Blunt, is the most pragmatic of Missouri's GOP members of Congress. She argued that "the personal finance of working American families is no place to play politics."

Rep. Billy Long, R-Springfield: GOP freshmen have changed the conversation.

But Long said he was "disappointed" with Boehner's decision, saying: "I knew it would be settled one way or the other. I just wish it had been the other."

Carnahan said the public perception of Congress — already at "historically low" levels — took a beating over the difficulty in reaching a deal on the payroll tax issue. "This further damages what people already think about Congress," Carnahan said, adding that "political gamesmanship makes absolutely no sense" on such a simple issue.

House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., blamed the "extreme, tea party faction of the House Republican conference" for the payroll impasse. "This action again emphasizes the extreme views and rigidity of the House Republicans even though 80 percent of the Republican members of the U.S. Senate supported this compromise."

Hoyer blasted "Republican conduct that puts a continued commitment to confrontation above all else. Americans want reasonableness and common sense, and they are not getting it from this dysfunctional Republican-led House."

For his part, Long asserts that House GOP freshmen, by maintaining a united front, have helped shift the congressional debate on spending and the deficit. "We completely changed the conversation," he told the Springfield newspaper. "The question is: Where do we go from there?"

Even though Boehner has tried hard to accommodate conservatives, some analysts think his leadership might come under strains as a result of the payroll debate. During the payroll dispute, Democrats sought to drive a wedge into the split between the GOP factions, a prelude to their likely approach during the 2012 election campaign: to try to cast Republicans as out of touch with average Americans, unwilling to budge from rigid conservative stands to help solve major problems.

"I think the tea party-engendered dysfunction has the potential to really get the electorate's attention," economist Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities told the Associated Press.

Is the House GOP's take-no-prisoners approach to legislating appears affecting the party's reputation? A survey by the Pew Research Center found half of Americans describing this Congress as less effective than most. It also found that, by a margin of almost 2-to-1, more Americans "blame Republican leaders than Democratic leaders" for the lack of effectiveness.

The Pew poll found that, "by wide margins, the GOP is seen as the party that is more extreme in its positions, less willing to work with the other side to get things done, and less honest and ethical in the way it governs. And for the first time in over two years, the Democratic Party has gained the edge as the party better able to manage the federal government."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has often clashed with the House tea party faction, tried to send a conciliatory message Friday — after the House agreed to the Senate's temporary position on the payroll tax extension.

"I hope this Congress has had a very good learning experience — especially those who are newer to this body. Everything we do around here does not have to wind up in a fight," Reid told reporters.

"I would hope, especially, I repeat, the new members of the House will understand that that legislation is the art of compromise, consensus building, not trying to push your way through on issues [for which] you don't have the support of the American people."

Contact Beacon Washington correspondent Robert Koenig.

Robert Koenig Beacon Washington correspondent

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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