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Why Are Republicans Still Bashing Congress?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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If there’s one thing that most political scientists, pundits and political insiders agree on, it’s that Republicans have a real advantage now in the House of Representatives. They have held it for all but 4 of the last 20 years, and few expect this to change after 2016.

For their part, Democrats have won the most votes for president five of six times. There is less of a consensus that Democrats have a clear advantage in controlling the White House, but it certainly doesn’t appear that Republicans have an edge.

Yet Republicans are still running on Newt Gingrich’s Congress-bashing agenda, created for an era when Democrats appeared to have permanent control of the House. Rand Paul has made term limits a prominent part of his platform. A constitutional amendment to balance the budget is important to both Marco Rubio and John Kasich.

Inside Congress, the House is still underfunding its professional staff  and maintaining Gingrich-era term limits on committee chairmen. This undercuts Congress's legislative and oversight capacity.

In the case of such procedures necessary to run government, hypocrisy is a virtue, not a vice: The system works best when politicians advocate for whatever is in their immediate self-interest rather than sticking to principle.

For example, both Democratic and Republican senators have flipped back and forth and back again on their support for filibusters over the last two decades, depending  on which party is the majority and which is in the minority. It's healthy when there's always a party to make a case for majority rule (and therefore against filibusters), and one to stand up for minority influence (and therefore support them). Likewise, it's always good for one party to advocate on behalf of Congress. If the majority party in both chambers won’t do it, then no one will.

Why are Republicans still stuck on Gingrich’s agenda? Granted, everybody always hates Congress, so you don't expect any party to praise the least popular branch.

Perhaps there’s a bit of inertia. But Republicans were quick to flip from advocating an all-powerful presidency from 2001 to 2008 to pretending, starting in January 2009, that it was intended to be a mostly ceremonial office. (This was quite proper, in my view, but they could have done it with more subtlety.)

Perhaps Republicans believe Congress shouldn't be able to do much -- even if it means it can’t perform serious oversight on Democratic administrations or produce laws to do away with large government programs. Perhaps for some baby boomers, the past is never past, and there's always a liberal-Democrat-Congess to run against. Or perhaps the Republicans' ability to make policy is too limited at this point to come up with anything more complicated than decades-old boilerplate, so they’re stuck with whatever they happen to have on the shelf.

Either way, a healthy Congress is important, so it’s long past time the Republicans stopped advocating new ways to weaken the legislature. 

  1. A balanced-budget constitutional amendment removes some of Congress’s control over fiscal policy. If it has teeth, it would have to be enforced by the courts, meaning that power over budgeting shifts from the legislature to the judiciary.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net