It’s not easy for an elected body to manage its reputation.
The actions of a few can reflect badly on the whole. Keeping members on the same page and moving in the same direction takes smart leadership. Ideological and personality schisms have to be respected and bridged. There are very few decisions that vast majorities agree with, so making a decision makes enemies.
Even with those excuses in mind, the current Congress has set new standards for failed reputation management. The most recent New York Times/CBS News poll gave Congress single digit favorability – a historic low. A Washington Post chart shows that impressions of our legislative branch have sunk well below those of lawyers, banks, President Nixon during Watergate, and even Communism.
Former star political reporter Thomas D. Edsall, now a journalism professor at Columbia University, explains that the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (aka the “Super Committee”) is failing to reach an agreement not because it can’t, but because failure would produce a more desirable political outcome.
“Winning the trifecta — House, Senate and White House — in 2012 is a game changer. We would be in the driver’s seat,” a top Republican Congressional aide explained.
Sure, an impasse would hurt millions of Americans and stick a knife in our already feeble economy recovery. But it would help one party seize greater political power next year, so who cares, right?
No one is naive enough to believe that politics can be eliminated entirely from the act of governing. In fact, politics is part of the constructive tension that makes democracy work, assuming the parties keep the public interest ahead of their self interest.
But American cynicism toward Congress has reached a record low because people can see very clearly that “doing the right thing” hardly even factors into the decision-making. It’s highly unlikely that any adult living outside the Beltway can name a single piece of legislation the current Congress has passed in 2011.
“Doing the political thing” seems to be the only motivation of either party and, as a result, there has been no perceptible action on dozens of very real problems – starting with our economy.
There are four forces that can begin the long process of improving Congress’ reputation, hopefully in a way that benefits the citizens that members of Congress claim to represent.
Congressional leaders, specifically House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, can realize that it’s time to act to save the institution. The President can make congressional inertia a central issue of his re-election campaign. The public can get fed up enough to affect change. Or, members of Congress themselves, if there are enough of them with courage, can demand Boehner and Reid get off our dime.
Ironically, the key to overcoming partisan inertia in Congress may be politics itself. With elections scheduled 11 months from now, members of Congress may soon reach a bi-partisan agreement on the ultimate political motivation -- survival -- and start getting something (anything?) done.
No one wants to play for the worst team in the league.