High school civics courses and even college-level political science classes on the separation of powers can sometimes differ radically from the actual practice.
In a time when corruption runs rampant throughout Congress, and the legislative branch consistently succumbs to the executive branch’s agenda, change within the government is necessary, say Thomas Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, co-authors of The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.
Both Mann and Ornstein spoke about their book at the American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday, July 12 as part of a panel discussion with former Speakers of the House of Representatives Thomas Foley and Newt Gingrich.
Among the other problems with Congress that Mann and Ornstein address in their book are Congress members’ greediness and use of earmarks to make more money. “The members [of Congress] focus on their own interests, rather than the American people’s interests,” Gingrich said. “If you need more money, get a different job.”
While sharing different political views and ideas, all members of the panel agreed that Congress has become deeply dysfunctional. “In the 36 years I’ve been in [D.C.], I’ve never seen Congress this bad,” Ornstein said.
The other panel members mirrored Ornstein’s disappointment with the state of today’s Congress, expressing the need for change. “Congress has to think about how fundamentally wrong the current system is,” Gingrich said. “We need to set some kind of standard. If we don’t challenge the system, it will get weaker.”
In The Broken Branch, Mann and Ornstein criticize the current Congress for the collapse of the deliberative process and the loss of the regular order. “Congress is not abiding by the web of rules and norms that make any system operate,” Ornstein said. “Their ends justify whatever means are necessary.”
Referring in particular to the Republican-dominated Congress’s failure to sufficiently oversee the executive branch and maintain the checks-and-balances system, Ornstein said that Congress is abandoning one of its key roles. “Congress is supposed to be independent, regardless of which party is in office,” Ornstein said. “They’ve caused more damage by not pointing out [the executive branch’s] flaws before they turn into major disasters.”
Ornstein described this relationship between the legislative and executive branches as “battered Congress syndrome,” in which “the White House slaps Congress around, but they keep coming back for more.”
Former Speaker of the House and Republican activist/author Gingrich also stressed the problems with Congress’s lack of independence. “It is very important to understand that legislators work with presidents, not for presidents,” he said.
Fellow former Speaker of the House Foley said that Congress is out of control and that “for one branch to over dominate is not healthy for our society.” He warned of the potential adverse consequences of letting Congress keep operating in such an underhanded way. “If Congress fails, democracy fails,” Foley said forebodingly.
The Broken Branch co-author Mann echoed the other speakers’ disapproval of the current unequal distribution of power between the three government branches. “Congress has failed to recognize that the other branches need to be constrained,” Mann said. “They have the capacity to raise the executive branch.”
Katherine Duncan is an intern with Accuracy in Media, AIA’s parent organization.