Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How to Fix Congress: Do More Work Behind Closed Doors

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How to Fix Congress: Do More Work Behind Closed Doors

Article excerpt

Sarah Binder believes Congress needs more talk in backrooms and less in front of television cameras.

She'd like to see more deals being cut by individual lawmakers working across the aisle in committee, rather than imposed by the leadership of the two parties, who have political motives for approving or rejecting negotiations on important pieces of legislation.

Those are among the suggestions that Ms. Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor of political science at The George Washington University who has studied Congress for more than 20 years, believes could help make one of the country's most vilified institutions run better.

In an interview in her office at Brookings, Binder, who has written three books on legislative gridlock, made these points about how a new Congress can begin to restore the trust of the American public.

How this Congress compares with past ones.

Back in the 1950s, many of the big issues were kept off the agenda. Civil rights were filibustered, women's rights and the environment [were] kept off the agenda. So it's hard to make comparisons. But to the extent we can make them: In the Great Society era [1963-65], about 70 percent of major bills made it through Congress. In President Obama's first term, when Democrats controlled the House and the Senate, only 40 percent passed. Now, with divided government, it's only 30 percent.

A house divided is only part of the problem.

Gridlock on average is about five percentage points higher in periods of divided control. Divided government makes things slightly more gridlocked, but not really. During the [George W.] Bush administration [2003-07], a pretty aggressive Democratic minority exploited the filibuster even in periods of unified party control.

The real reason behind the current stalemate.

The biggest source is the rise of polarization. With a more liberal Democratic Party and a more conservative Republican Party, there are higher and higher levels of partisan team play in Congress. It reduces the incentive to accept a compromise. There's also increased electoral competition. When was the last time we had a landslide? When the "big enchilada" [all three elected branches] is in reach, why not hold off until your party controls the White House, House, and Senate, and then legislate?

How to legislate in times of intense polarization.

That's where the question of secrecy comes in. There are some issues where [lawmakers] just divide up the pie: You get a third, he gets a third, I get a third. To divide up a pie, you don't need to go behind closed doors. You just need a number. But on an issue like immigration, it's not dividing up the pie, it's enlarging the pie. Democrats get a path to citizenship, Republicans get more border security. Each side gets a win. You stitch a deal together. …

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