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Lorelei Kelly Headshot

Keep the Democrats in Charge of Congress

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I hope that some bright young lights in the Democratic party grab the steering wheel. Here we are in the midst of an economic crisis and a war and today's Republican talking points run the gamut from the laissez-faire to the feral. Are you an angry independent? Keep in mind that it can get worse. It was worse just a few years ago.

My government-geek nightmares are back. Imagining today's Republican leadership in charge of the House of Representatives makes me feel like doing that 360 degree demon head-swivel from the Exorcist. I say this not as a partisan. I have been an unaffiliated progressive for most of my voting life. For years, I have worked with both Democrats and Republicans. But when I put my institutional hat on, there is no contest. Unlike their forbears, today's Republicans don't like governing. And recent history shows that -- where Congress is concerned -- they are also bad at it.

I am worried about November on behalf of the institution of Congress. Why? Because today's Republicans are not conservatives. Over the past 15 years, they have nearly purged themselves of the individuals who are interested in conservation. Another word for this now absent type of conservative Member is an institutionalist -- somebody who cherishes the Congress and whose loyalties transcend political parties. It used to be a conservative value to maintain our representative democracy based on discourse, deliberation and balanced regulation. Not anymore.

Congress is dealing with lots of problems today. Like most antiques, it is old and creaky. It is in the midst of a communications transformation. It faces continual public wrath and bitter internal division. The world's most powerful legislature is in trouble. Putting today's Republicans in charge will make it worse.

Before you decide to stay home or throw away your vote in protest this November, you should consider the following:

Republicans made Congress dumb on purpose:

In 1995, led by newly elected Speaker Gingrich, The House passed rules to eliminate much of the expertise inside of Congress. The new conservative majority lobotomized the legislature: the scientists, the investigators, the bipartisan shared staff, the "user-friendly" policy wonks dedicated to evidence based decision making, the big-picture types who could forecast policy choices on issues like, say, terrorism and nuclear weapons. Yep. The knowledgeable folks were "reformed" out of existence.

The currency of Congress is staff and rooms -- two key ingredients for oversight. In 1995, Gingrich wiped out the people who asked the hardest questions and took away the office space. This move also eliminated many of the types that keep an organization resilient and dedicated to larger public purposes.(i.e. governing rather than political optics). I could make a good argument that one reason we are having such a tough time in Afghanistan (and Iraq) is that Congress pretty much stopped doing oversight on national security issues for a decade. If the Republican leadership had done their job, we would have heard the voices of our military commanders telling us -- way back in 1995 -- that today's political conflicts have no military solution.

And get this: Before 1995, dozens of Republicans paid dues to the Democratic Study Group (also eliminated) for rapid response information about foreign policy. They joined the Democrats because it was the best data. Period. Today's Congress does not lack information, it lacks the wherewithal and the incentive to use it for shared, deliberative oversight. This is a system problem, but one party made it a lot worse, the Republicans. If the past is prelude, and if the current rhetoric is any indicator, Republicans will maintain even fewer incentives for evidence based decision making. Choosing this path forward will not end well.

The result of Gingrich's revolution? Instead of blazing the trail, the US is falling behind on the roster of global change leaders. Instead of being enabled at their workplace to explain the modern world to their constituents, Members can barely handle the input and demands from districts. This is not a partisan problem, but an institutional one. Members need lots more expert staff. Ideally staff that is shared. Lacking institutional guardians, those who can purchase relationships on Capitol Hill have more power and influence than ever. I.e. private corporate lobbyists.

The Godfather is not be a model for Governing:

Newt Gingrich talks like someone who loves innovation and wants to help. He still comes across like a pilgrim in search of the golden land of government. But as Gollum would say, he is trixy. Gingrich is smart and fun to listen to. I admit it. But as a public official, his track record is appalling. He has not demonstrated love for the institution that he ran (into the ground). Under his leadership, Congress became an information racket. Once he wiped out the public sector knowledge system, he changed seniority rules to put his political allies in charge of committees.

The internal information vacuum was filled by an army of anti-government types with a flavor for every section of the IRS code. Writing legislation was often handed over to commercial lobbyists. Conservative ideologues with corporate paymasters filled every crevice with coordinated talking points. The main institutional practice of Congress--that of holding government accountable--was downgraded to meet the demands of payback and revenge. Just look at the cast of characters in the 90's and the 00's--the smooth consiglieres, the stooges, the thugs. And then there was the racket itself: ransom, hostage taking, lucrative job switching. Remember Tom Delay's K Street Project? You can say what you want about Nancy Pelosi, but she is not running an illegal enterprise out of the US Capitol.

Today's Congress is at a crossroads. With the Democrats in charge, it has been doing a far more rigorous job of policy oversight since 2006. It is struggling to regain its institutional identity, its power relative to the Presidency and its mission to represent ordinary people before corporate interests. There are good, public spirited Members in both parties, but on the Republican side, these individuals are not persuasive to their leaders.

And while neither Democrats nor Republicans have a modern ideology of governing, ad-hoc references to FDR and a sense of social obligation sure beat punishment and rigged markets which, it seems, are the twin pillars of Republican policy platforms.

Congress is not a perfect institution. And yes, Democrats behave badly too. But governing is always a long game. There is no quick fix, but it has improved in just four years. We can look forward to fewer mine disasters, to fewer BP oil spills, maybe even getting big money out of politics -- if Congress re-dedicates itself to public purpose. Where are the problem solvers -- those loyal to the institution, on the right?

Crickets chirp. Tumbleweeds blow through... Where are they?

The radical anger and intentional destruction of our legislature wreaked by recent Republican rule should serve as a warning. Their rhetoric has become even more reckless. Gingrich rode to power on the last communications wave to hit Capitol Hill. The coming years are vital. Congress will be a different place in a decade. Will we create an ever more responsive, and interactive Congress? Or will we kill off whatever is left of our common governing heritage?

Keep this long-game in mind when you go to vote this November. Cast your ballot. Don't pull the trigger.

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