Breakdown. Crisis. Dysfunction.
These three words set the theme of Jeff Bingaman’s insightful, timely new book that dissects the causes and consequences of what he sees as a long unhealthy climate in Congress.
Bingaman, a moderate Democrat, spent 30 years as a U.S. senator from New Mexico, from 1983 to 2013. So his book, “Breakdown: Lessons for a Congress in Crisis,” is, mostly, an insider’s view.
During those years, and since, the House and the Senate have changed for the worse, he states in the book’s introduction; that change has made it tougher for Congress to do its work 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 shut down the federal government. Bingaman rejects the tactic as he does three others he writes, that contribute to this dysfunction.
The other three are threatening to default on the national debt, and, in the Senate, abusing the chamber’s right to filibuster (to prevent a vote on a measure), and refusing to consider a president’s nominee to the Supreme Court.
The tactics, he contends, go against norms (long-standing understandings and traditions) that keep Congress from performing its “essential” duties. The book has suggestions for Congress, and separately for its individual members, to do a better job of countering “the destructive effects” of these tactics.
On a broader scale, Bingaman’s book also details five “impediments” he believes Congress must overcome to avoid breakdowns and to better act in the public interest.
• Pressure to toe the party line. “There’s effective discipline in the Republican Party to keep its members of Congress from deviating from the party position. Now more so,” he said in a phone interview from Santa Fe, where he lives.
• Pressure to vote as the polls dictate. “We now have instant polls on subjects that tell you what the candidates think about something. … There’s more of an inclination to go with the popular view than to do the right thing,” Bingaman said.
• Ideology (the burden of political philosophy). This impediment, he argued, is the sort of anti-government sentiment that is pretty well-entrenched in the Republican Party and dictates a lot of what goes on and is – or isn’t – accomplished in Washington.
• Pressure from special interests. “I would guess that there are five to 10 times as many lobbyists on corporate payrolls today than when I got (to the Senate),” he said. “It seems that the more money you’ve got in politics, the more influence there is in the legislative process since the rise in the cost of campaigns.”
• The media. Bingaman writes that the number and variety of people and groups claiming to be “media” have exploded since his arrival in the Senate. Media includes traditional news outlets – newspapers, magazines, radio and over-the-air broadcast TV – but also cable TV, talk radio, internet webcasts, blogs, and many types of social media.
A powerful emerging media element is “advocacy journalism.” Bingaman declares in the book that some in the media “blatantly advocate a position” or disguise their advocacy as reporting and in doing so fail to report the facts or the views of others.
The dramatic rise of the media and social media, it seems to him, reinforces the polarization in Congress that would not otherwise be present in political dialogue.
Two long-standing concepts – compromise and bipartisanship – also suffer from the worsening dysfunction, Bingaman said.
“Breakdown – Lessons for a Congress in Crisis,” by Jeff Bingaman.