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The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track (Institutions of American Democracy Series) Hardcover – August 1, 2006

4.2 out of 5 stars 31 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Until recently, one could be forgiven for thinking that the present Congress is essentially an arm of the Bush administration, according to Mann and Ornstein, nationally renowned congressional scholars from the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, respectively. Their book argues persuasively that relentless partisanship and a disregard for institutional procedures have led Congress to be more dysfunctional than at any time in recent memory. Looking back to the arbitrary and sometimes authoritarian leadership of Democratic speaker Jim Wright and the Abscam scandals of the 1980s, the authors demonstrate how they presage the much worse abuses of power committed by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and superlobbyist Jack Abramoff. In outlining more than 200 years of congressional history, Mann and Ornstein sometimes allow just a sentence or two to explain the policies and philosophies of an important politician or even an entire party, even as they catalogue deviations from obscure points of procedure in extensive detail. Their book may be useful and enjoyable to the specialist, though recent conservative pushback on issues from the Harriet Miers nomination to warrantless wiretapping and immigration will make some wish the authors had had the opportunity to add a postscript. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Mann and Ornstein are affiliated with different political parties and work at rival Washington think tanks, but they share a fascination with Congress and an abiding dedication to the First Branch's productivity. With this book, they stage an intervention. Over the past 20 years, they assert, legislators have increasingly subordinated earnest deliberation to partisan tribalism, eroding that branch into division and dysfunction. Although careful to remind us that the root causes of this decline lay in an escalating dialectic of majority arrogance and creative rule bending perpetuated by both parties, the brunt of Mann and Ornstein's criticisms are of the current Republican majority. They are not afraid to name names: House Speaker Dennis Hastert, for example, is repeatedly singled out as guilty of putting party before duty. The majority of Mann and Ornstein's analysis, however, examines incremental yet insidious tweaks of congressional procedure: three-day workweeks and innovative methods of arm-twisting. Both a plea for a return to dignified deliberation and a brave discussion of which legislative behaviors need to be changed, this book is timed for the upcoming congressional elections. Brendan Driscoll
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Series: Institutions of American Democracy Series
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; annotated edition edition (August 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195174461
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195174465
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 1.2 x 5.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #338,750 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Edwin C. Pauzer VINE VOICE on August 28, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein bring to light what many Americans don't know, or don't care to know. The legislative branch of government, the House of Representatives and the Senate have long ago stopped serving the constituents they were elected to serve.

In this searing story that will scare the republic out of you, the authors tell how the Congress of yesteryear, the Congress that would negotiate, debate, compromise, represent the will of their constituents, and the best interest of the country, are a dying breed.

They have been replaced by congressmen and women who have allowed lobbyists to write the bills for the special interests they represent. They have cajoled party members to vote strictly along party lines at the expense of constituent representation and independent thought. They have introduced bills hundreds of pages long with little or no time for debate or compromise, let alone time to read its provisions. They have introduced bills late at night demanding an up or down vote. Having complained long and loud about democratic pork, the republican congress has increased "earmarks" from hundreds to the thousands. And this is the laziest congress in years, working less than 100 days a year.

Leading the charge of congressional dysfunction are Sennsenbrenner, Frist, Hastert and Delay. Sennsenbrenner allowed the credit card industry to write the new bankruptcy bill. Sennsenbrenner wouldn't allow any amendments that would have allowed veterans to keep their homes or seniors to keep theirs in the face of astronomical medical bills. Hastert removed a congressman from the Ethics committee because he was investigating Delay. Delay demanded that lobbying firms replace their democrat lobbyists with republican ones if they wanted to be "allowed in.
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Format: Hardcover
I just watched a two hour panel on BookTV.org, CSPAN2. The panelists were the two authors, Newt Gingrich, and Tom Foley, the Democrat Speaker of the House before Newt. All were in agreement with the premise of this book: that the House has become a tool of the Executive branch, and has abrogated it's oversight duty. Bills are devised in the dead of night without bipartisan or even intra-party debate, simply to implement White House policy. Leader PACs and fund-raising are the key duties of our representatives. I was shocked to hear that the House has cut its in-session time from three days a week to one, as most members fly into DC on Tuesday night and out on Thursday morning. Most of the time they spend in DC is with lobbyists. This leaves no time for discussion or even reading the bills they are voting on. It leaves no time to get to talk with and to know the other Congressmen, or to hear dissenting views, and leads to the passage of flawed bills and acrimony with their colleagues.

Scariest of all is the invocation of war powers in a war that probably will not end in our lifetimes, at a time when the House, Senate, White House, and Supreme Court are all dominatted by one party. We could be just one terrorist attack away from a dictatorship. This book is a must-read for politicians, political scientists, reporters, and voters. Congress is neglecting its duty, and the American people are neglecting theirs by not voting and by not thinking about the issues that this book raises.
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Format: Hardcover
The "broken branch" Mann refers to is Congress' House of Representatives. He has concluded that a majority of today's Republicans in Congress see themselves more as foot soldiers in the President's army than as members of an independent branch of government. Serious congressional oversight of the executive branch has largely disappeared. This is NOT an exclusively Republican phenomena - arrogance, greed, venality, and condescension towards the minority were significant evidence prior to the Republican takeover in '94; however, since President Bush took office these practices have been raised to new levels.

Passage of the Medicare drug benefit in the House serves as the authors' prime example of abuse. The vote was held open for 2 hours, 51 minutes - far beyond the normal 15 minutes. This extension allowed enough pressure, threats and bribes to achieve passage. (In the 22 years Democrats ran the House after electronic voting, it only happened once - and that in a seemingly justifiable instance. The Republicans did it at least a dozen times both before and after the Medicare vote.) In addition, Democrats were left out of the bill's drafting (as were most Republicans - it was created in a special committee, without hearings), as well as most of the conference committee Democrats. Further, it (like many other key bills) was brought to a floor vote under closed rules (members cannot offer amendments - this has occurred 2-3X as often under Republican leadership), and without time to even read the legislation. There was also the issue of inaccurate cost estimates provided to help sell the bill. The authors then go on to argue that the House has become polarized by extreme gerrymandering that gives inordinate power to extremists in both parties.
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In 2003 Gallup conducted a survey that asked the public to rank professions according to honesty and ethics. Members of Congress ended up with a 17% approval rating in this regard. This was, of course, before Mann and Ornstein wrote this book. Having now read the book I would tend to give them a 7% rating which would tie them with used car salesmen.

This is not a highly partisan book. It was written by two Washington think tank men who have worked with congress for over 30 years. Democrats and Republicans share in the disgrace that is recounted here. The horror of it is that it is getting worse each year. The authors start the book with a history of congress and how it evolved. It is interesting to note that Party power struggles were part of the congressional system throughout the history of the republic.

Rules are frequently changed to strengthen the party that is in power. There was a rule that vote counts were to take 15 minutes, yet when the Medicare drug plan came up for a vote three hours passed while Republican leaders went around threatening, and even bribing members to change their vote. Members often spend only two days a week in Washington. Thousand page bills are brought up on the floor with no notice. Conference reports are changed in the middle of the night, and rules are used to suppress debate.

Committee chairmen, in a certain sense, buy their chairs insofar as they often go to the biggest money raisers, and not the most senior or the most competent. Congressional staffers come and go in revolving door manner so they can go work for lobbying firms, which firms are required to employ only those belonging to the party in power. Congressional members even shake down lobbying firms for money. There is no true, properly functioning ethics committee.
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