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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
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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.
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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Top Customer Reviews
To be sure, there is no idyllic past where civility reigned and members of Congress only cared about a greater good. However, there have certainly been times where Congress has functioned better than the recent past. And that is the focus of the authors.
They believe that Congress (page ix) ". . .has always been the first branch" and that it serves "as the linchpin of the American constitutional system." And, they feel, over the past two decades the course of Congress has gone off on the wrong track. This began when the Democrats were still in control and began to behave more arrogantly, while the minority's attacks on the majority part grew more shrill and hard-nosed. Things have only gotten worse, they contend, in more recent years.
Among the problems that they address: the permanent campaign to retain individual seats and party control, the increased polarization of the parties in Congress (what they term "the collapse of the center"), the near "tribal politics" that they claim characterizes partisan conflict today, the lack of oversight by a Republican Congress over a Republican president, the lack of fairness in procedures, and so on.
The fear that the passage of major laws (such as the Bush tax cuts, enactment of the PATRIOT Act) without due deliberation has led to poorly thought out policy. They conclude that (page 242) "The broken branch distresses us as long-time students of American democracy who believe Congress is the linchpin of our constitutional system."
They do provide suggestions that might remedy the ailments that Congress faces, as they see it. However, these will likely not prove compelling to most readers. Their analysis of problems, however, is nicely done. Will there be change with the change in party control after the elections of 2006? Only time will tell, but the authors surely cannot be optimistic.
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.
This was a very painful and depressing book to read. The fact that this book also ranks down around 11,000 on Amazon's best seller list is also sad. I think that high school civics teachers should make this book required reading in their classes so that our youth can see how our democracy really runs. What kind of government do we end up with when no one has the time or inclination to read the bills that end up for a vote which sometimes is taken at 3 AM. First there were the books on the Iraqi war that I finished reading, and now this sad book. If I read many more books on the world situation I'm going to have to start taking Prozac.