Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein in their work, “The Broken Branch,” contend that today’s Congress is a vague ghost of what it used to be – our old Congress not beset by partisan bickering and a failure of responsibility. While earlier in history, indeed as recently as in the early years of Mann and Ornstein’s study of American politics, our Congress would actually work together to constitute bipartisan solutions to issues. This being in contrast to today’s Congress, which is seemingly forever locked into an environment of intense partisanship no matter the legislative makeup of the two houses. Mann and Ornstein believe that this is due to several factors, among which include a decline in accountability, the advent of the permanent campaign, a new media environment, and the collapse of the center within Congress, among others. Mann and Ornstein are especially critical of how Congress has abandoned institutional independence in favor of ideological and partisan responsibility.
The authors make a note that it is easy to glamorize the past when demonizing the present; I’m always cautious when reading a comparison piece between how much better the “good old days” were compared to where we are now, but Mann and Ornstein have made several points throughout their book of which I thoroughly agree. Foremost, their overarching thesis that Congress has become a “Broken Branch” due to the focus of passing partisan agendas over institutional responsibility, such as meaningful checks and balances with the executive branch, is one I think we can all clearly see the effects of even today despite The Broken Branch’s writing in 2006. Two of their prominent examples underscoring these issues with contemporary Congress include the handling of the 2001 tax cuts and the war in Iraq, and I believe the authors make a great effort to prove these points via examples of Congressional inefficacy and lack of scrutiny of the executive branch.
Mann and Ornstein also delve into other issues they have with Congress, with further examples of their loss of institutional identity. These include situations such as the effort to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, the Terri Schiavo end-of-life care controversy, the 2005 energy bill, earmarks, and others. I think if this book were rewritten today, they’d also make note of Congress’ failure to avert the sequester, their fights over the debt ceiling, the downgrading of our credit rating, and consistent failure to pass appropriations bills on time, to name a few. Perhaps many of these reasons are factors for their authoring of another book specifically about the 112th Congress, called “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” which delves even further into the incredibly partisan and dysfunctional Congressional environment we have today.
I found this to be an accurate assessment of the current state of our national politics. The authors have a proficient insight into the political world from their own experiences working with Congress, and their many strong examples of what is happening today juxtaposed with how the Congress of yesteryears have overcome similar conflicts is a stark and depressing look at our contemporary Congress. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein are among the most respected scholars of Congress in Washington today, and this book really drives home their point that our current Congress has sadly devolved into an embarrassment of the institution. For anyone interested in today’s congressional politics, I highly recommend giving this a read to learn more about why today’s Congress seems to have a tendency to fail the American people.