Reform Could Be the Key to Compromise

The most interesting public opinion factoid to keep in mind as we pivot through the lame-duck session and prepare for the 112th Congress ahead is the following: By wide margins, Americans want our elected officials to work together, to compromise to solve the huge problems facing the country at home and abroad. But the numbers are not uniform across groups.

Democrats and independents want cooperation and compromise by a roughly 2-to-1 ratio, but self-identified Republicans want their politicians, by nearly as wide margins, to stick to principle and not indulge in dilution through compromise.

This poses a challenge to Republican leaders. They know pragmatically that two years of bickering and gridlock are not likely to work to their advantage with those independent voters who put them over the top in the House and within striking distance in the Senate. It also poses a challenge to the new Members, who came to Washington, D.C., to change the culture but also to change the outcomes.

I doubt Republican leaders in the House or Senate are eager to see a bipartisan coalition developing on reform issues they tend to oppose.

Where can we find coalitions that can actually work and pass muster with the primary voters who will judge the new members? Is there any way to bridge the yawning chasm between the liberals who make up the lion's share of the Democratic base in the House and the tea party acolytes who make up a sizable percentage of the freshman class?

In an ideal world, the big issues--getting the economy in shape and ameliorating the deficit and debt problem--would be fertile ground. One can imagine a grand bargain on a new stimulus, with an infrastructure bank, a green bank and a payroll tax holiday as the foundation. Or a deficit reduction plan based on restraint on all parts of the budget, and more revenues via genuine and bold tax reform. But the reactions of both sides to the deficit commission and the report of the Bipartisan Policy Center do not suggest optimism.

There is, however, one seemingly unlikely area where optimism might be warranted: reform.

The thought struck me last week when I saw that a variety of tea party groups had mobilized to support the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which has been under sustained assault by the hierarchies in both parties since its inception. The House adopted the OCE by the barest of margins, with the support of less than a handful of Republicans and with plenty of Democratic opposition as well. Over the past two years, it has operated as intended, independently but prudently investigating allegations of ethical transgressions by Members and staff, with every move it has made supported unanimously by the bipartisan members of the OCE, who have widely disparate points of view and ideologies, and with a refreshing transparency to all its actions.

But the very independence and seriousness of purpose of OCE has generated sizable opposition within Congress, starting with the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, extending to the Congressional Black Caucus and to many Members who would prefer to keep ethics issues much closer to their own vests. Given the initial staunch opposition of John Boehner (Ohio), Eric Cantor (Va.) and nearly every incoming honcho on the GOP side, it was not surprising their initial comments suggested the OCE would be erased in January, left out entirely from the rules package that frames every new Congress.

The tea party activists' involvement has already changed that dynamic, causing Boehner and Cantor to back off their comments about OCE. These tea partyers, and presumably their Representatives in Congress, don't want the old-boy network that long "managed" ethics issues--with both sides conspiring to avoid serious ethics investigations that would roil the waters. They want an honest, open Congress.

So here is an opportunity for a new coalition between freshman Republicans and veteran Democrats who helped create OCE and who believe in its continuation (and maybe even making it more credible and stronger). But let's not stop with ethics reform in the House. How about a new effort for ethics reform in the Senate, where the same aversion to serious ethics enforcement has long been a characteristic?

Then there is broader Congressional reform. There is no reason for any partisan or ideological divide on creating a new, more predictable and more effective schedule, based on a succession of five-day workweeks in Congress followed by a full week to go back to the district or state. Rep. Rob Bishop (R), a former Speaker of the Utah House, has a set of common-sense reforms, including on scheduling and transparency, that could and should get bipartisan support.

I also do not see any reason why new Republican Senators such as Rand Paul (Ky.) and Mike Lee (Utah), along with newly elected veteran Washington hands such as Sens.-elect Rob Portman (Ohio), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Dan Coats (Ind.), would not join a bipartisan effort to make the Senate work better without taking a meat ax to the existing rules. They could remove impairments such as the filibuster on the motion to proceed and the obsolete provision that can bring committee work to a halt when the Senate is in session, and improve the process for confirming executive appointees. Of course, the same coalition could also advance the No. 1 proposal to advance transparency, the DISCLOSE Act.

I doubt Republican leaders in the House or Senate are eager to see a bipartisan coalition developing on reform issues they tend to oppose. But that could make it even better, allowing many of the new Members to strike a blow for a new, more honest and more open Washington, even in the face of pressure from their leaders.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


Norman J.
  • Norman Ornstein is a long-time observer of Congress and politics. He is a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal and The Atlantic and is an election eve analyst for BBC News. He served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Mr. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future (AEI Press, 2000); The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann (Oxford University Press, 2006, named by the Washington Post one of the best books of 2006 and called by The Economist "a classic"); and, most recently, the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann, published in May 2012 by Basic Books. It was named as one of 2012's best books on pollitics by The New Yorker and one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post.
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