Washington (CNN) -- At the end of his career, former House Speaker Tip O'Neill was asked how Congress had changed between the 1950s and 1980s. O'Neill answered: "The people are better. The results are worse."Read the whole thing. He goes on to talk about the evolution of the filibuster, why lobbyists matter, and the end of bipartisanship due to ideological loyalty.
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Take this quiz. Name the most important legislation enacted in the 30 years between 1950 and 1980.
Overwhelming isn't it? Civil rights. Voting rights. Interstate highways. Medicare. Medicaid. The deregulation of the airlines, natural gas, trucking, rail and oil. The immigration act of 1965. Clean Air, Clean Water, and the Endangered Species Acts. Supplemental Security Income in 1974. I could fill the whole screen.
Now ... the next 30 years.
There's the Reagan tax cuts of course. Deregulation of the savings & loans in 1982. The Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Welfare reform in 1995. Medicare Part D. What else?
Leave aside whether you are liberal or conservative, whether you approve the measures mentioned above or disapprove. It's hard to dispute: Congress just got a lot more done in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s than in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.
You hear many grand, sweeping explanations. Let's try just one simple one.
Congress in the first period was controlled by a handful of committee chairmen, who owed their positions to seniority. The committees did their work in secret. Bills written in committee typically could not be amended on the floor of Congress. The institution was authoritarian, hierarchical, opaque. And stuff passed.
In the mid-1970s, Congress underwent a revolution. The power of the committee chairmen was broken. The number of subcommittees proliferated. The committees met in public. Amendments multiplied. Congress become more open, more egalitarian, more responsive. And stuff ceased to pass.
Again and again, today's gridlock can be traced to yesterday's reform.
However, a reason bipartisanship is difficult, is how the true politicians politician flips flops at the hint of a politically driven need. Take Sen. Judd Gregg, R-NH, for instances, who in 1995 said that reconciliation is:
“the rule of the Senate,” and one that allows for “majority rule.” “Is there anything wrong with majority rule?” he asks. “I don’t think so.In supporting this tactic, he helped ram through President GW Bush budgets that have shown to be economically devastating to the country.
But now that the tables are turned, Gregg is thinking reconciliation is bad:
"That would be the Chicago approach to governing: Strong-arm it through," said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who briefly considered joining the Obama administration as commerce secretary. "You're talking about the exact opposite of bipartisan. You're talking about running over the minority, putting them in cement and throwing them in the Chicago River."I think Frum makes some good points, and the article itself is a great Cliff Note to the evolution of Congress over the past 60 years. But it is also the transition to 'Win at any cost' politics that is stalling our elected leaders from getting work down; and the minority, regardless of which party it is at the time, seems content with that.
If there is a sincere desire to change the way congress works, the electorate must understand it can't be done by hiring the same people over and over again, and expecting different results.