Opinion: Why can’t members of Congress work together?
Over many years, Congress has created processes and rules that enable the party in power to marginalize the minority party. This creates frustration and anger and minimizes incentives to compromise
Events in Washington, D.C., last week emphasized a major difference between federal and state politics. President Joe Biden offered his State of the Union address with various jabs at Republicans, who responded with shouts and rude behavior. Yet several days later the National Governors Association convened a meeting (Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is vice chair) where issues were vigorously debated but in a congenial and civil manner. We discuss the obvious disparity.
Regardless of who is in charge, why are the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate engaged in never-ending partisan vitriol between the parties and even inside party caucuses?
Pignanelli: “There is a choice between the extremes and the exhausted majority, who exist and actually want us to work together to solve stuff that matters.” — Gov. Spencer Cox, on “Meet The Press”
Astronomical events help us understand the nature of the heavens. The juxtaposition of Congress, the White House and the collection of governors helps us understand political celestial bodies.
Congress was always a home of inflammatory rhetoric, whether internally or in opposition to the president. Indeed, some of the most violent occurrences of political activities occurred on Capitol Hill. Several millennia of history reveals such representative bodies are built primarily for debate. Our government is no different.
Conversely, governors must balance budgets and manage large bureaucracies. They may engage in the occasional fiery speech but must produce results on a consistent basis. Contention is a distraction. When governors across the country do gather, they may argue before quickly finding common ground.
The best analysis is to consider how voters scrutinize candidates. Usually, federal candidates are held more accountable for policies articulated than for their performance. The opposite metric exists for governors.
We are grateful that the alignment of planets helps us explore outer space. The configuration of politicos helps us understand how we are governed.
Webb: The U.S. Congress is dysfunctional for three reasons: The first is that Congress reflects the divided nation, especially the activists and extremists in both parties who enjoy outsized influence and are not interested in compromise.
The second is structural. Over many years, Congress has created processes and rules that enable the party in power to marginalize the minority party. This creates frustration and anger and minimizes incentives to compromise.
The third, and the biggest reason, is overwhelming overreach. Congress and presidential administrations have concentrated so much power and responsibility at the federal level that they have guaranteed their own failure. They attempt to take care of every human need from cradle to grave and solve every problem in existence through big government.
In the process, they reduce individual responsibility and delay the consequences of bad decisions. Failure to achieve their impossible aspirations produces finger-pointing and disillusionment — and even greater escalation of promises. The most recent example of dramatic overreach was Biden’s state of the union speech, in which he outlined dozens of big-government programs that are sure to fail. Congress and presidents would be more efficient and productive — and more civil — if they stuck to their constitutional duties.
Does the Utah Legislature suffer from the same acrimony that afflicts Congress?
Pignanelli: Among all the parliamentary regulations and rules of procedure in the Utah Legislature, is the unwritten law that lawmakers “do not make it — or take it — personal.” Plenty of blistering speeches are launched at the state Capitol, but they tend to be policy- and not personality-based. While there are partisan differences or urban/rural divisions, there is a demeanor of respect. The Utah governor would never deride local Democrats in a state of the state speech, nor would the loyal opposition jeer during his presentation. An aberration from this standard by any lawmaker causes isolation.
Webb: Compared to the U.S. Congress, the Utah Legislature is a model of legislative effectiveness. It solves problems and gets things done, often on a bipartisan basis. Democrats often sponsor important legislation.
However, the Utah Legislature has an advantage. Republicans enjoy overwhelming control. Thus, in some cases they can afford to be magnanimous to the Democrats. If Democrats had more clout, if representation was closer to 50-50, we’d see more partisan bickering and hostility.
At the State of the Union speech, Sen. Mitt Romney walked up to GOP Rep. George Santos (who was in a prime location) and told him, “You don’t belong here.” Romney’s public rebuke of the beleaguered congressman garnered universal acclaim. Does this incident demonstrate a way to encourage better behavior?
Pignanelli: Romney’s actions were based upon personal repugnance toward Santos more than a PR opportunity. An overt recognition by officials that bad behavior among colleagues is intolerable in our government institutions is what citizens crave.
Webb: After confronting and berating Santos as the TV cameras rolled, Romney told reporters Santos is a “sick puppy.” And I agree. Santos shouldn’t be in Congress. But it’s also not classy to kick a sick puppy on national TV.
Romney can be haughty and condescending to people he obviously disdains. He didn’t need to be so sanctimonious. Let the House go through the proper process of booting Santos out of Congress.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a former journalist and a semiretired small farmer and political consultant. Email: email@example.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.