COOPER ON PBS - "NEED TO KNOW" - MAKING CONGRESS WORK
December 9, 2011
Or read the transcript below.
PBS: "Need to Know-Fixing Congress" 12/9/11
Jeff Greenfield: So finish the sentence, please. Congress today is
Congressman Mickey Edwards: Well, Congress is dysfunctional because it is not one Congress. It is two rival Congresses sitting in the same chamber fighting with each other
Congressman Jim Cooper: It is broken, and endangering the country
Norman Ornstein: Even worse than it looks.
Jeff Greenfield: You had the experience Congressman Cooper of you were there, you left, and eight years later you came back. Did you come back to a different institution?
Congressman Jim Cooper: I came back to a much worse institution. Congress has never been perfect. In past periods of American history, it was worse than it is today. But, that is no excuse. When Tip O'Neil was Speaker and Bob Michael was Minority Leader they got along. They fought during the day and got along at night. Today, it is not only a contact sports, it is a blood sport. People hate each other all day long and all night long. They are not compromising, they are not doing the nation's business and as a result we saw the nation's credit rating lowered for the first time in history. We saw the Super Committee fail. It really never had a chance. Other significant failures are really threatening the prosperity of the country.
Norman Ornstein: We have a different culture now. And it is one where a small sliver of the parties that dominate the process and so you intimidate members. There are 40 or 50 Republicans in the House who I think in their hearts would love to work out some of these issues maybe a few more. You look at the number of Republicans who signed the letter for the Super Committee who said please put everything on the table, but they can't, they simply can't move. Or they will be ostracized and probably removed.
Jeff Greenfield: Now, let me turn to some reforms. Here is one suggestion by very one well known commentator, cut to Elmo clip.
Elmo Clip: In Washington, everyone hates each other. No one will do anything together. Really? And it is hurting America. How do you fix that, Elmo? Play dates. Play dates? Ya, everybody has play dates. Like a Democrat and a Republican have play dates? Ya, play dates. Harry Reid and John Boehner have play dates? Ya play dates and everybody brings their own food.
Jeff Greenfield: Elmo suggesting play dates. You talk a little about the fact that Members do not cross party lines perhaps not to have play dates but to dine together, to have lunch together, to hang out together. Again, you have an institutional memory here from when you first entered Congress. Is that a change, and would it help if you think that we could get back to that?
Jim Cooper: It is true that most Members of the House don't really know each other. They often don't know their names; they certainly don't know their families or their backgrounds. The good news is most backbenchers are gregarious and we get along, and we can bridge these gaps with play dates or other ways of getting to know each other better. But, I think it is going to take deeper reforms than that.
Mickey Edwards: When I was sworn in as a Member of Congress, I discovered here are the Democrats on one side of the aisles and here are the Republicans on the other side. And the first time, I gave a speech on the House floor; I wanted to talk my friends who were Democrats. I thought I could persuade them. I went over to the lectern that is in front of the Democrats, and everybody just gasped. And they told me no, Democrats speak at that lectern. Republicans speak at this lectern, and every single thing you do in the House is divided whether it is the cloak rooms or whether it is, you know. Everything about it is divided into these rival camps so you really have to change some things about the way the Congress operates.
Jeff Greenfield: Norm, you have been looking at this institution for?
Norm Ornstein: Forty-two years, I have been here. I would say flatly that this is worst than I have seen it in forty-two years. It began to deteriorate in some ways, right after Newt Gingrich came in 1979 with a full blown theory and strategy at that point on how to create a Republican majority in the House, and after that point they have been shut out for 24 straight years and went on for 40 years. It was how to destroy this institution to save it kind of of attitude. It was not Newt, but it started an era of populist anger, of polarization, it moved us right into the permanent campaign. It created divisions that continued for a long time. I look back at the interaction with Mickey being there. A strong conservative, but a strong institutionalist. Someone who has really believed throughout his entire lifetime in the role of Congress as the first branch of government. Seeing basically the denigration of the institution by many of his colleagues. It has taken us down a path where you have very few people like these two who think about the regular order, how you operate the legislative process, what politicians are supposed to do. That has gone into tribal warfare.
Jeff Greenfield: Let me just visit the past for a second then bring it back. It seems to me that the other argument that the republican minority was content to be in the minority forever and when Newt Gingrich came in and said look we are going to engage, we are going to draw very sharp lines, and that is how we are going to win a majority. We are going to take on the majority by showing that they have bad ideas, that they are bad folk. Was that really what started bringing this congress down?
Mickey Edwards: That isn't what happened. It didn't start with Newt. Jim Wright when he was the Speaker instituted a lot of closed rules that shut out the Republicans from offering amendments so they chafed at that so that helped lead to the situation with Newt made the Republican whip, but he made it far worse. It is one thing to say that we do not want the Democrats to be in charge because we have ideas of our own, and we want to advance these ideas. But, democracy is about process, and our process is based upon the separate institutions, and how those institutions work. And, what Newt brought to the table was destruction of the institutions. Destruction so that more and more people followed his model would come to Washington thinking of themselves as Republicans not as members of Congress. If you have a republican president and Republican Congress, you see him not as the head of a separate branch of government on which you earn to keep a check but as your team captain and you are trying to keep him from getting sacked. It totally changed the whole situation.
Jeff Greenfield: You are a Democrat. A well known Blue Dog Democrat
Jim Cooper: Exactly
Jeff Greenfield: You have this problem on your side of the aisle?
Jim Cooper: You are right. Both political parties are afflicted by the same virus. Substance has taken a back seat. Many members do not today simply what they are voting on. They are just trying to follow the party line. I am worried that our Congress has morphed into a parliament in which we have 95, 99 percent party loyalty. We aren't putting the good of the country first.
Norm Ornstein: Jim has hit at the root of where we really are. If you don't have broad bipartisan leadership consensus and one party jams its way through and the other party tries vigorously to oppose everything. Half of the country thinks the results are illegitimate.
Jeff Greenfield: Illegitimate? Not just wrong?
Norm Ornstein: Right, illegitimate and tries to overturn them which we are seeing now with the health care plan and the financial regulation. Then you move to divided government where you can't operate with a parliamentary minority party because you get gridlock or the politics of blackmail which is what we have had in the 112th Congress.
Jeff Greenfield: One of the arguments is that we have had this great sorting out in America. That we live with people that think like us, vote like us, districts are more overwhelmingly red or blue therefore the danger that incumbents in the House that they have particularly is that if we move too far to the center, then we will have a primary run against us. Is this in fact an issue?
Jim Cooper: Since most Congressional districts are gerrymandered today meaning that they are all Republicans or all Democratic. The fear now is that you will have a primary opponent. The general election has almost become irrelevant because every ten years when we are redistricting. We are doing that this year. It becomes either all red or all blue. There are only a handful of districts that are in the middle that could go either way so that creates embedded partisanship for decades.
Mickey Edwards: The problem is, let me go back to the primary system. To some extent, it is wrong to just blame the people who participate in government. When Christine O'Donnell beat Mike Castle in Delaware, and therefore because most states do not allow you to run in the general election if you lost in a primary, Mike Castle was through politically. There are nearly a million people in Delaware
Jeff Greenfield: That many?
Mickey Edwards: Ya, that many nearly a million. Christine O'Donnell to win that republican nomination and end Mike castle's political career, she only got 30,000 votes. Where were the people? Where were the voters? So we created a system where only the hard-liners participate, and the people lose the option of going with people who might be willing to compromise.
Jeff Greenfield: One of the ways that other countries get people to vote is they make it mandatory. My own sense is there may be a Constitutional problem here that nonvoting is an expressive act of disengagement.
Norm Ornstein: Jeff, let me put in a word for what I call not mandatory voting but mandatory attendance at the polls which is what Australia does. In Australia, you don't have to vote, but if you don't show up a t the polls, then you are subject to a fine roughly of $15. You can get out of it by writing a letter that you are sick, you are out of town, or the dog ate your voting card, but they get 97% turnout. The main impact is that politicians know that there base is going to turn out and the other side's base is going to turn out focus on issues that matter to the voters in the middle who are persuadable. They change their rhetoric, less bombastic because that turns off the voters that matter. They don't focus on issues like guns or same-sex relationships nearly so much as they do on big issues that matter.
Jim Cooper: Increasing voter turnout may turn out to be more doable than you think. You don't have to fine people if they don't show up at the polls. You can use a carrot instead. For example, what if you got 10 or 15 bucks off your taxes for showing up at the polls that might be a more pleasant way to encouraging it.
Jeff Greenfield: Something that is already in place in California that was adopted for just this motive. That is the so called all in or jungle primary. Californians are going to be voting for every office except for the President by nonpartisan primaries, and the top two finishers move to November. The theory of Governor Schwarzenegger is that it will force these folks to the go to the middle. Good idea?
Mickey Edwards: Great idea. Washington State did the same thing in 2006. It allows the voters who after all are the ones that matter to have a range of options instead of choosing between the 2 people that the partisans, the zealots in the party have allowed to move onto the general election. Instead of 2 candidates to choose from, you might have a dozen or ten who are legitimate, viable candidates and they are talking to a broader section of voters, a broader cross-section of voters. I think it is a great idea. I wish we have it all over the country
Jeff Greenfield: Looked at it?
Norm Ornstein: I think so partly because it is easier to do than providing money for voters or making them pay. We are watching the California experiment with great interest to see if it will help. The other thing that I would really like to do is to move Election Day to the weekend. If we could have a 24 hour voting period from noon Saturday to noon Sunday, you don't have Sabbath problems. Have 3 days of early voting for people that aren't around on the weekends. We need to make voting easier for people not hard.
Jeff Greenfield: Let me pick up on one other very specific notion. That is the Senate filibuster. I realize that you gentlemen come from the House. I am just wondering that it seems to me that whatever side is in or fears it is going to be in the minority is going to think that this is the greatest thing since sliced bread. It is my protection. How is that ever going to change when it is always in some side interest to keep it.
Norm Ornstein: The filibuster was never a part of what the framers intended. It was almost an accidental thing, but it was also very infrequently through most of our history. What has changed now is this culture, it is not the rule. It is the use of it as a routine matter and not just to block something that you care deeply about, but to basically to clog up the system entirely. That is a change, and that is really bad
Jim Cooper: Jeff in the old days like When Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the movie with Jimmy Stewart, you had to risk your bladder to filibuster. Today, it is a technical filibuster. You have an aide file a piece of paper so there are hundreds of them now when they use to be one or two a year. So the filibuster is probably worth keeping, but for real issues of national importance not on routine matters.
Mickey Edwards: To follow up on what Jim just said. That means requiring the Senator who wants to do the filibuster to actually be on the Senate floor stating his reasons for the filibuster and holding the floor for as long as he is able to hold the floor.
Jeff Greenfield: And given the age of some of these guys, the bladder issue will probably be effective.
Norm Ornstein: Tell us about it.
Jeff Greenfield: One more issue to talk about
Norm Ornstein: We can't end this without mentioning the word money. Getting people to run office, when you know once you run, you will have someone dedicated to spending millions of dollars to destroy the reputation that you have. You will then have to spend all of your time begging for money to do the same to your opponent so that you can get to office and spend every spare moment running off the Capital grounds so you can raise money for you, for your team and your tribe, and to guard against some outside predator group created by Citizens United who might spend $20 million dollars destroying you. That is no way to run a system.
Jeff Greenfield: You all think that money is a noxious substance in the political process or at least the way it is used now. What do you do about it? Particularly with the Supreme Court thinking it is a constitutional right.
Mickey Edwards: Well, it is a noxious substance. A corporation is a person, well is my coffee mug a person? I do not know what the Supreme Court will say next, but the debate is all focused on campaigns are expensive. They are going to cost a lot of money, and the only debate is where the money is going to come from. I think we need to turn it on its head, and make campaigns not cost so much. So free radio time, free TV time so the need for money is not such a great problem.
Jim Cooper: I would prefer a system where you could only raise money from home, from your own congressional district, your own state that would do a lot to remedy the problem.
Jeff Greenfield: There I think you have a real First Amendment problem. If I live in New York, and I think a senator from say North Carolina for an example is a blight on the Republic and is sponsoring terrible ideas. I don't quite understand how you can say the Constitution that says I can't have my voice be heard. This guy or lady is having a national influence.
Jim Cooper: The Court will make up its own mind, but they clearly went too far with Citizens United because corporations are not people contrary to what the Court has ruled. We can work through these problems because the current situation is not making a strong America.
Norm Ornstein: What we can do beyond that is along with some of the things Mickey suggested to reduce the costs is to enhance the role of small donors which the internet now makes possible and less expensive. It is going to require multiple matching funds and incentives for candidates to raise money from a much larger number of donors which also gives them a stake in the system but doing all of that and if you have opened the flood gates to huge sums of money, unlimited sums of money then the corruption from candidates and parties shaking down donors and the need for people to beg for money to counter it means that nothing we do is going to stop what has become the new gilded age which is a very very dangerous phenomena.
Mickey Edwards: I am not sure that you can't craft legislation that would pass Constitutional muster that would say for the purposes of elections that the term person only means an actually living human being so that. I want to get rid of corporate money, but I want to get rid of corporate money, labor union money, PAC money, party money you know to just have contributions from individuals.
Jeff Greenfield: So we are headed into 2012 so if we reconvene 8 years from now just from the lay of the land that you see know, is your expectation of Congress to be better or worse or just continuing the way it is?
Mickey Edwards: Better and I think because more and more people now identify themselves as independents. People are fleeing from the party system. We all are and we are just a small number of the many people out there who are putting forth reforms. I think the coalition and the coalescing of people who want to change the system is finally coming along and alive. I think a lot of these reforms that we have talked about will be in place. I think 8 years from now will be considerably better.
Jeff Greenfield: Jim, are you an optimist down that road?
Jim Cooper: I am an optimist. America has always healed itself before. We can and must do it again. I just hope that we do it in time before the credit markets and factors like that weaken our country.
Norm Ornstein: If we convene 2 years from now, forget about. 8 years from now, it may be different. Right now Congress approval is 9%. John McCain says we are in the blood relatives and paid staff, maybe they will get down to 5%. The blood relatives are shaky at the moment, but then we will bottom out and move back up. I am very much afraid that the short term problem that we see confronting the global economy may make it take longer than 4 or 5 years.
Jeff Greenfield: So the guidance for the viewers here appear to be leave the country until 2019, keep your fingers crossed, and we may come back to a better congress
Norm Ornstein: Maybe leave the planet