Following Ronald Reagan’s footsteps, Newt Gingrich also did much damage to an effective government. The House changed fundamentally after the 1994 election when Gingrich became Speaker. He believed in and practiced all-out political warfare. While he demonized the Democratic party as much as possible, his important battles were often against Republicans. Gingrich put a premium on party loyalty and purity as he and his cohort defined it. A Republican who cooperated with Democrats, who even socialized with them, was an anathema to be driven from the party. A compromise with the Democrats, even if it might advance important legislation, was to be prevented or punished as consorting with the devil. Coalitions across party lines increasingly became an act of tremendous political courage.

Newt Gingrich not only increased partisan rhetoric and imposed strict party discipline, he, in effect, abolished what had always been an important congressional device, the conference committee. Seldom do the House and Senate pass precisely the same version of a bill. If they don’t, those differences need to be ironed out and the uniform bills returned for a vote in each house. The conference committee served that function for two hundred years, but the traditional conference committee was composed of members of both parties from each house. Gingrich was not going to have that because it gave minority Democrats, whom he had demonized to get a Republican majority, a role in the process. Instead, Gingrich insisted that the Senate negotiate differences in any bills not in a conference committee but with him and the House leadership. And in the tit-for-tat world of the modern Congress, when Democrats regained control of Congress, they continued Gingrich’s practices that threw out the conference-committee tradition. Now only a few bills that become law are vetted in a conference committee.

Thee disappearance of conference committees means more party discipline, less outreach across the aisle, and more partisanship. If Senators or Representatives no longer negotiate with members of the other party but only with the leadership of their own party, members of Congress become more and more trained to follow what the leadership wants. Political independence wanes. The legislation that is enacted becomes more political and less the product of thoughtfulness and expertise.

Few in Congress today leave their imprint on any important legislation. Their chief goal is to get reelected, and they have been taught by political consultants that substantive achievements are not the path to another term. Think back to the last congressional election in your state and district. How often did incumbents tout legislative successes? If anything, the connection to important legislation can often be detrimental, for the passage of a bill almost always requires compromise. In safe districts and states, the main obstacle to a return to Washington is a primary challenge where a compromised ideological purity can be a detriment. It’s better to remain “pure” than have produced imperfect but still valuable legislation.

As a result of these many reasons and trends, Kaiser notes that in today’s Congress, “Legislating is no longer the principal preoccupation of our legislators. Most commonly, it is politics by sound bite.” And snippets for the media seldom require any deep understanding of the issues. There is little incentive to do the hard work of mastering substance. Congress has become dominated by people with political skills but limited expertise, and this makes thoughtful legislation unlikely. Conference committees used to bring some expertise to bear on the final legislation. Conference committee members participated in hearings, and their staffs developed knowledge about the issues. Conference committee negotiations did have a concern with the legislation’s substance. Now, however, the negotiations are with the leaders of the Senate and House, and they and their staffs have not developed expertise about the substance of the proposed law. Instead, the overriding goal of the leaders of the Senate and House is to keep their party’s majority. They will be primarily care about the political impact of the legislation. When the leaders supplant conference committees, the quality of legislation suffers.

(concluded March 29)

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