Break down. Crisis. malfunction.
Those three words form the subject of Jeff Bingaman’s insightful, timely new book, which analyzes the causes and consequences of what he sees as a long unhealthy climate in Congress.
Bingaman, a moderate Democrat, served 30 years as a US Senator in New Mexico from 1983 to 2013. So his book, Breakdown: Lessons for a Congress in Crisis, is largely an insider’s view.
In those years and since, the House and Senate have changed for the worse, he notes in the book’s introduction; This change has made it harder for Congress to do its job for the people.
He said he first witnessed congressional dysfunction in the mid-1990s when House Republicans elected Newt Gingrich as speaker. Gingrich set the stage for a Republican-backed tactic that crippled the federal government. Bingaman dismisses the tactic as he credits three others that contribute to this dysfunction.
The other three threaten to default on the federal debt, abuse the chamber’s right to filibuster (to prevent a vote on a measure) in the Senate, and refuse to consider a presidential nominee for the Supreme Court.
The tactic, he claims, violates norms (long-standing conventions and traditions) that prevent Congress from fulfilling its “essential” duties. The book contains suggestions for Congress, and separately for its individual members, to better counter the “destructive effects” of these tactics.
More broadly, Bingaman’s book also outlines five “obstacles” that he believes Congress must overcome in order to avoid collapse and better act in the public interest.
• Pressure to stick to party line. “There is effective discipline in the Republican Party to keep its congressmen from deviating from party positions. Even more now,” he said in a phone interview from Santa Fe, where he lives.
• Pressure to vote according to polls. “We now have instant polls on subjects that tell you what candidates think about something. … There is more of an inclination to go along with the popular view than to do the right thing,” Bingaman said.
• Ideology (the burden of political philosophy). That impediment, he argued, is the kind of anti-government sentiment that is fairly ingrained in the Republican Party and dictates much of what is happening and being achieved – or not achieved – in Washington.
• Pressure from special interests. “I would estimate that there are five to ten times as many lobbyists on corporate payrolls today as there were when I was[in the Senate],” he said. “It seems that the more money you have in politics, the more influence you have in the legislative process since campaign costs have increased.”
• The media. Bingaman writes that the number and diversity of people and groups calling themselves “media” has exploded since his arrival in the Senate. Media includes traditional news outlets—newspapers, magazines, radio, and terrestrial television—but also cable television, talk radio, internet webcasts, blogs, and many types of social media.
A strong emerging media element is “advocacy journalism”. Bingaman explains in the book that some in the media “obviously take a position” or disguise their advocacy as reporting, while not reporting the facts or views of others.
The dramatic rise of media and social media, it seems to him, is increasing polarization in Congress that otherwise would not be present in political dialogue.
Two longstanding concepts — compromise and bipartisanship — are also suffering from the worsening dysfunction, Bingaman said.
“Breakdown – Lessons for a Congress in Crisis”, by Jeff Bingaman.