Is the legislative branch broken?

US Capitol Building

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Congress is out of session, so now lawmakers can get down to what sometimes seems to be the real job in Washington: getting reelected. Politicians are buying ads and making speeches. They're talking, but are they really saying anything?

We're going to kick off our fall election coverage today. What you should be hearing as you get ready to vote but aren't. Marketplace's Scott Tong has the first installment of The Real Agenda. It starts right up on Capitol Hill.


SCOTT TONG: What do you worry about?

Michael Dimock has an idea. He analyzes polls for the Pew Research Center.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Economic issues come up a lot when we ask people to describe the biggest concerns in their lives right now. It's things like healthcare and retirement, the big uncertainties that are hardest to plan for.

He's found these are recurring issues for all of us: the old, the young, the middle class, the swing voters.

DIMOCK: Economic concerns exist across the political spectrum, that's for certain.

But are these problems for Congress to fix?

Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution says absolutely, that any real reform in healthcare or Social Security requires some level of market regulation.

TOM MANN: It should be front and center for the federal government and for the Congress.

Mann has a new book, written with fellow Congress-watcher Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.

It's a scathing indictment called "Broken Branch." They argue the institution of Congress has deteriorated in the last two decades.

Problem one, says Ornstein: Partisanship has given way to warfare.

NORM ORNSTEIN: Now it's tribalism. Now if you consort with the other side, even for a noble goal, you're sleeping with the enemy.

And legislative promiscuity is what it takes, he says, when it comes to major social policy changes.

He recalls a bipartisan deal 23 years ago on retirement issues.

ORNSTEIN: The 1983 Social Security reforms did what conventional wisdom said could not be done: Not just tackling Social Security, extending the retirement age.

That bill also sped up a tax hike. Not popular stuff, but as President Reagan said at the time, the right thing to do.

[ President Reagan: It's a clear and dramatic demonstration that our system can still work when men and women of goodwill join together to make it work. ]

ORNSTEIN: Can we do that now? Absolutely not.

Ornstein says today's climate punishes members who take on big issues.

Take last year's Social Security plan from President Bush to create private accounts. His Republican friends in Congress are now getting slammed on the campaign trail.

[ Political ad: What happens if George Bush privatizes Social Security? With benefit cuts, seven out of 10 will lose money. ]

The liberal group Americans United is targeting Republican incumbents with ads like these.

[ Political ad: Social Security. It's a guarantee you've earned. Don't let them make it a gamble. ]

Back in 1994, Democrats were the ones punished, for backing universal healthcare.

Now the thing about complicated economic issues is, well, they're complicated and members need time to learn.

Tom Mann says the problem is they're so busy fundraising and campaigning, they're hardly ever on Capitol Hill.

MANN: The typical work week now is members arrive late Tuesday. No votes before 6:30 in the evening and depart by Thursday afternoon.

And that means most bills are rush jobs pushed by party leaders.

MANN: It took months after the Medicare prescription drug bill was passed for members of Congress to figure out what they had voted for.

Co-author Norm Ornstein says it's no wonder the final product is often sloppy and low-quality.

ORNSTEIN: We now make large policy the way that General motors used to make cars when they had a monopoly. You throw them out even when you know you know there are 50, 60 or 100 defects and wait 'til you get feedback from the consumer who becomes the victim here to make the corrections.

Now if Congress isn't doing its job, it may be the case that voters aren't either.

Healthcare consultant Robert Lashefsky says it's one thing for the masses to worry about healthcare and retirement, it's a whole 'nother thing to be outraged. And we're not there yet.

ROBERT LASHEFSKY: Last year, the average cost of health insurance for a family went up $20 a month. Now in one sense that's a lot of money. On the other side, $20 a month doesn't put people in the streets.

He thinks the public tipping point will come when health care gets so pricey that a lot of employers stop offering it. And that's when politicians will listen to Joe Public, instead of, say, Joe Lobbyist.

LASHEFSKY: Politicians will ditch the lobbyists in a New York minute if the voters are ready to throw them out if change doesn't occur.

Until then, he expects healthcare and retirement security to register barely a blip on the political radar.

In Washington, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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