We know Congress is broken. Really broken. Health care, immigration, civil rights. But many of us on the outside don't know just how badly broken it is, and we have only vague spectator ideas of how to fix it. What we do know is what we want, which is real action from Congress toward solving the problems our country faces.
Two recent books — both political memoirs fused with some prescriptions for repair of the system — offer insider views of how awful Washington politics really is, and paint a bleak picture of the path back to anything resembling a working American political system.
Tom Allen's Dangerous Convictions: What's Really Wrong with the US Congress (Oxford University Press) and Olympia Snowe's Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress (Weinstein) are neither uplifting reads nor remotely comforting when describing the cannibalistic brutality of our elected officials.
Allen's book reads like a standard politician's treatise, focusing on his experiences and interactions over 12 years in Congress (1997-2009), and offering mainly partisan criticism of the broken system — expressed in poorly edited repetitive language and rhetoric. To read his book, you could be forgiven for thinking there's basically nothing wrong with Democrats, and everything that's not working is the fault of extremist Republicans.
Snowe, by contrast, takes a selective view of her 40 years in politics (six in the Maine Legislature, and 34 in DC: 16 in the House and 18 in the Senate), choosing her anecdotes carefully to develop precise points about what needs to be fixed — by both parties — to set our government back on a productive course.
We can mine both books for a clearer picture of what's wrong, and Snowe's work in particular for ways we can push Congress to clean itself up and get down to the people's business again.
The "do-nothing Congress" of 1947-48 passed 906 public laws; in 2011-12, Congress passed just 283, Snowe observes — as just one of a host of criticisms she heaps on Congressional leaders of both parties. Her main objection is that without legislative action, problems persist in the lives of the American people, piling up over time, and worsening without hope for repair or relief.
For example, when recalling the disastrous 2011 budget crisis that led to the so-called "budget supercommittee," and ultimately resulted in the across-the-board federal spending cuts called the "sequester," Snowe pulls no punches: "When your remedy to head off disaster is to form a committee, you know you're in trouble."
She is relentless in her criticism, lamenting that "perhaps we should have a refresher course on how a bill becomes law, because it seems that the art of legislating has been largely forgotten," and noting that when the supercommittee failed, public "confidence in government was shattered." She places the responsibility on members — and leaders — of both parties, and dissects what, procedurally, electorally, and societally, has gone wrong. Driving the nail into the coffin, Snowe hammers the point home: "The stakes were extraordinarily high, and still we couldn't act decisively."