Early Returns

Disarming Congress's Bomb Throwers

Jonathan Bernstein's morning links.


Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

I recommend the discussion between my Bloomberg View colleague Megan McArdle and Yuval Levin about the budget process and congressional dysfunction. There's some here I agree with, quite a bit I don't, but the whole thing is worth reading.

On the history: It's not quite right that the 1995 elections ended a 40-year period of "Congress understanding itself as an institution run by Democrats, with Republicans exercising power by putting pressure on internal Democratic divisions." After all, Republicans had a Senate majority from 1981 through 1986. And going back to the 1950s brings us to a very different situation than what Congress was like in the 1970s.

What happened is that as the Democrats became a liberal party, they reformed both chambers -- especially the House -- to empower their caucus (and therefore their leadership). That was understandable, and in large part a good idea, because the committees had become too strong and too detached from, well, democratic control. But in doing that in the House, Democrats wound up leaving minority Republicans with very few ways to exercise legislative power, which in turn made even very sensible Republicans of all ideological stripes open to Newt Gingrich's bomb-throwing.

And then when Republicans took over in 1995, Gingrich made the odd decision to further damage Congress rather than build it up under Republican control. For that, see Max Ehrenfreund at Wonkblog on the appalling problem of congressional capacity. Think of it as part of the underfunded infrastructure of U.S. democracy -- and, yes, we've hit the point where bridges are falling down regularly and huge sinkholes keep appearing. 

As I see it, the budget process and normal legislating have broken down because Republicans (who have had the House majority for all but four of the last 23 years) are still throwing bombs at their own strongest institution in the national government. 

So I'm very happy to see smart Republicans such as Levin thinking about congressional reform. But while it may turn out that the budget process could be changed for the better, the real problem is that individual members of the House and congressional committees just don't have the abilities that they once had, and there doesn't seem to be much movement to do anything about it. 

1. At the Monkey Cage, Joshua Tucker talks with Sarah Mendelson about the effects of all those "empty" desks at the State Department. 

2. While Dan Drezner chronicles the foreign-policy debacles in last week's news. 

3. Sarah Kliff on the mounting dangers to Obamacare

4. Bob Bauer at Lawfare on the rule of law and the Donald Trump/James Comey interactions. 

5. Paul Waldman at the Plum Line on the curiously undivided Democratic Party.

6. And Jonathan Chait on the possibility of Trump firing the special prosecutor. Oh, it's possible. But I think Chait is wrong about the consequences. Firing Comey may not have immediately cost Trump the presidency, but that hardly means it didn't have costs; it contributed to getting a special prosecutor named in the first place, an acceleration of congressional investigations, and probably to his continuing slippage in the polls. I would expect the consequences of firing Robert Mueller would be similar, with further erosion of Trump's position. 

Get Early Returns every morning in your inbox. Click here to subscribe.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.