Op-Ed: Is there Hope for the Dysfunctional Republican Congress by Rob Ketcham


Our Republican Congress is essentially dysfunctional, is there any hope for improvement?

With its new President and a Republican Congress the United States itself in an unsettled place. I am hoping that with my background working as senior committee staff in the US Congress, I may be able to shed some light on what is or is not going on with our leaders and our government. Despite the fact that there has been a considerable gap between now and when I was immersed in the legislative branch, the principles of how to legislate well and produce a quality product (law) haven’t changed.

It is my belief that Congress and its modus operandi are not well understood by our citizens or by the media, and worse, by the legislators themselves, in part because the legislative process itself requires very hard work to do well. Generally, it comes across as the blind men viewing the elephant; it depends on what you are touching, not what you are seeing.

The Republican party has a majority in both the House and the Senate, and historically, since the President was also elected as a Republican, the development and passage of a Republican agenda should be quite feasible. But we live in interesting times, and it is my view that the Republicans in the House and Senate, by and large, are demonstrating that they either do not understand the legislative process or they have deliberately chosen to stay on their narrow, partisan path, no matter the consequences. Until Donald Trump’s election they were able to operate in a mode of opposition, seldom in the mode of cooperation. In addition, many of them have managed to tie themselves in knots by signing single-minded pledges demanded by this or that constituency which serve to reduce their policy options by placing blinders on their thinking about the topic under consideration.

In 2012 a book was published by two political scientists I had rubbed shoulders with some years ago. Their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman Ornstein examines the polarization that has shaped the Republican party. The book portrays

the party “….. as an outlier, using unusual and unprecedented parliamentary tactics and tools to delegitimize outcomes and acts from the other party and promote mass obstruction and nullification.” I was also interested to read their observations from an earlier book written in 2006, The Broken Branch, which documented the demise of regular order, describing the bending of rules to marginalize committees and hamstring the minority party, and probably even more important, discussing the decline of deliberation in the lawmaking process, and the loss of what they identified as “institutional patriotism” among members.

The legislative process requires considerable effort, a consensus ahead of time about the objective, an identification of the persons and policies affected, a careful plan to hold open hearings about the policy being legislated, and, at some stage, drafting the policy in legislative form which can be introduced and sent to the appropriate committee or committees. All of these legislative activities are designed to build support for the proposition being legislated and to hear and learn about the reactions to the propositions by those who favor them and those who oppose them. All these legislative steps provide checks and balances for the system.

The NYT of July 11, 2017, contains an article, “Which Party Was More Secretive in Working on Its Health Care Plan? “ It notes that eight years ago, Senator Mitch McConnell complained that the Affordable Care Act was “being written behind closed doors, without input from anyone.” The authors compare what happened eight years ago during the first six months of public activity on health legislation in Obama’s first term with what has happened on health legislation this year in Trump’s first term. So far the number of days of public activity this year on the GOP bill in the House and Senate is nine days, compared with 43 days for what became known as Obamacare, during the same six-month period. During its Obama care deliberations in 2009, the House Committees held four days of hearings, and the Senate committees held one on related health care changes, all before the bill was drafted. That same year the Senate health committee spent a total of 13 days marking up the bill, seven of them during the first six months.

The Republican 2017 legislative health care activities are de minimis. Republican lawmakers spent two days debating policies related to their bill on the House floor. The Senate, thus far, has not debated at all. Two other items of comparison jump out: 1) 200 witnesses were heard during consideration of the Affordable Care Act in 2009, while so far this year, 18 witnesses have been heard by the Republican Congress, and 2) There were five Senate bipartisan meetings in 2009, while none have been held so far in this legislative cycle.

The Republican party and its machinations related to Health care this year are a great ongoing case study. For years, the Republican party line was that Obamacare should be repealed, and anything calling for a legislative fix should be opposed. No positive alternative was supported, considered or proposed. We are now learning that since the Republican leaders did not think Trump would win the election, they were not positioning themselves to have to come up with anything new or substantive, just a continuing opposition. With their election success in November, the spotlight shifted the legislative onus to the new Republican Congress and to the new Republican President. It is increasingly clear that no one was ready with a well thought out proposal that had been developed and tested. The shift from being against Obamacare and Obama policies, to being in favor of something positive has not yet been demonstrated. Ignoring the legislative process, and essentially remaining in the negative role, the House proceeded to darken the windows, offer homilies and generally inaccurate or misleading assessments about how awful Obamacare is, and without hearings or an Congressional Budget Office report (which is a requirement in the legislative process) rammed a bill through the House. This poorly thought out strategy put the Republican House members on record as voting for something that will most surely come back to haunt them.

Then the Senate, whose vaulted leader who is often billed as a legislative genius and strategist is in July, 2017, attempting to build support for a Senate Republican version of Health Care produced outside the legislative process by some 13 hand-picked Senators. This attempt gives new meaning to the book title previously cited; It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.

So where do we go from here? The Trump Administration appears at this juncture to have very little understanding or appreciation of the legislative process, and seems to think of the Congress as just a rubber stamp for whatever it wants. It is not clear after more than six months in office that the President understands that his political role vis-a-vis legislation requires far more than simply making demands or threats (which can often be counterproductive, and not at all helpful).

As a result, Congress is pretty much on its own and is camped out in the open field all by itself. Right now the Senate is in the headlights and beginning to face considerable pressure because of its unfinished legislative business with October 1 coming up fast. The media is beginning to hone in on these coming deadlines, in part because some of the same topics have wreaked havoc in the past, including agreeing on a new budget before the fiscal year begins on October 1. Another factor is the debt limit: Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has asked Congress to increase the debt limit by the end of July! Good luck with that!

Over the past few days, it has been reported that Mitch McConnell, has twice mentioned the possibility of now working with Democrats. It is also being reported that efforts are underway by opponents to the Senate’s health proposal to involve Republican Governors whose states and citizens are affected. Now that the Republicans are in charge there is no place for them to hide, the American people are watching, and so far it is not a pretty sight. The amazing confluence of national issues, health, taxes, and budget deadlines and legislation to reauthorize important program areas like the Children’s Health Insurance Program all are demanding legislative attention. Every day there is another story about what some of the Republican proposals will do to many many of our most vulnerable citizens, and almost none of it is good.

Therefore, my deepest hope for our country in 2017 is that Congress finally decides to get down to work, to take the time to meet and discuss what can be agreed on, and what can be put off. Bipartisan discussions should begin. The Chinese symbol for “conflict” depicts both danger and opportunity. For whatever its worth, all the members are in this together. Although most legislators, almost by definition, are conflict adverse, not dealing with these issues before them is much worse. The heat under the legislative pot is being turned up and up, and the issues are now out in the open, no longer behind closed doors where they can be “controlled.” As a result, by not following some type of regular legislative order those issues not raised and discussed publicly in the orderly process of legislating are now being raised by each affected interest group.

So stay tuned. It is my hope, which the Senate will decide to slow down health care legislation with some bipartisan agreement, and then find some agreement on how to proceed on the other critical issues that must be addressed, hopefully again, with bipartisan cooperation. I am also hopeful that Democrats will become a positive force, rather than starting to act like obstructionist Republicans.

Robert Ketcham served as the chief of staff of the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology and staff director of the Fossil and Nuclear Energy Subcommittee during the 1980s and 1990s. Prior to those positions, he was Special Counsel to the House Select Committee on Committees chaired by Richard Bolling (D-MO).  He holds a BA and JD from Washington and Lee University as well as a SG from Harvard University’s Senior Managers in Government Program. He has lived in Easton since 1999 with his wife, Caroline.

Letters to Editor

  1. James Nick says:

    After eight years of rubber-stamping Bush II’s agenda and eight more years of enforcing a total blockade of the Obama administration, Republicans no longer collectively possess the necessary skills, experience, or even the interest to legislate – via “normal order” or not. Like tokens in a Monopoly game, Republicans in congress have become mere placeholders. They are just mercenaries in the culture wars who are expected to carry the water for special interest groups, such as the NRA and ALEC (to name just two), that craft all the legislation for them. This state of affairs is a consequence of decades of partisan gerrymandering taken to its logical extreme.

  2. vernon miller says:

    the dysfunctional problem is with the cry babies you lost get over it & get behind your government

    • Deirdre LaMotte says:

      No, Mr. Miller, you are mistaken. The country has lost. Yes it must have been difficult having an African American President and then an accomplished woman candidate running.How nice for Trump supporters to have a crotch-grabbing, lying male who affirms men’s whiteness and “supremacy.” Oh, and Trump loves the “less educated” Maybe it is time for critical thinking and less time on Fox.

    • Steve Payne says:

      The current government is dysfunctional because of internal divides. Republicans control both the house and the senate and they still can’t anything done.

  3. Steve Payne says:

    I believe it really started with the formation of the Tea Party. They were accepted into the Republican party and won a lot of races in 2010 bringing the Rs back into power in the House. Multiple moderate Rs have since been primaried by the hard right so the few moderates left are afraid of them.

    I’d love to see regular order and bipartisan legislation but I won’t hold my breath.

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