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The U.S. Senate is back in session today. The House returns tomorrow. But with Congress so divided, expectations are low that lawmakers will accomplish anything of significance before midterm elections. Immigration reform has been declared all but dead. Even providing critical funding for the nation’s highways and bridges has become controversial. And if recent years offer any indication of how quickly Congress can agree on a budget, there could be cause for concern. Some political analysts are already expressing worries about another government shutdown. Diane and guests discuss the 113th Congress.
- Norman Ornstein Resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute; co-author of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks."
- Donna Brazile Democratic strategist; adjunct professor at Georgetown University; nationally syndicated columnist.
- Tom Davis Former U.S. Congressman representing Virginia's 11th district (1995-2008) and chairman of the Republicans’ congressional campaign committee from 1998-2002.
- Charlie Cook Columnist for National Journal, and editor and publisher of "The Cook Political Report."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Congress returns from a recess this week, the Senate today, the House tomorrow. But the 113th Congress is in a state of deadlock on many key issues. Few expect any significant legislative action before the midterms. President Obama expressed his frustration by instructing his administration to find ways to work around Congress to get things done.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio to talk about our nation's Congress, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, Democratic strategist, Donna Brazile, former Republican congressman, Tom Davis, and Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report. I hope you'll join in the conversation, call us on 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to all of you.
MR. NORMAN ORNSTEINGreat to be with you, Diane.
MR. CHARLIE COOKThanks for having us on.
MR. TOM DAVISYeah, thanks.
MS. DONNA BRAZILEAlways a pleasure seeing you.
REHMThank you. Norm Ornstein, there is so much to be done. Why are expectations so low?
ORNSTEINWell, one thing, Diane, I was just looking at the House calendar that Eric Cantor, the former majority leader, had put out. And if you really count up the number of full days in session for the remainder of the year, we have less than three weeks. There are, you know, the schedule is almost all come in late Monday night and leave just after noon on Thursday.
ORNSTEINAnd, of course, the entire month of August off and many days that are called the constituent work week and you have none of the appropriations bills done. We have this crying need with the highway trust fund. We've got the issues raised with the VA and the question of reform. I mean, the agenda -- and, of course, that's not to include things that are now off the table, like immigration and little prospect of significant action being taken.
ORNSTEINSo the Congress that was the least productive in our lifetimes, in fact going back much further than that, seems to be intent on setting a record that will be hard to break further down the road.
REHMCongressman Tom Davis, your thoughts.
DAVISWell, Norm's right. I don't think you're going to see much. This is a election year and it's started early and it continues. The House has passed a number of appropriation bills, but I think Reid pulled the last bill off and said there won't be any more appropriation bills this year. That's the one thing Congress used to have to do ever year and now they keep putting it off. I mean, one year, I think it was six months late.
DAVISThe Export-Import Bank looks like it's going to be thrown under the bus as part of Republican leadership fight. The one thing, I think, there's got to be two things. They're going have to act on the president's immigration proposal that he's put forward, $2 billion he's asked for. I think you're going to see some reaction to that. I don't think they can just let that go.
DAVISIt'll be an opportunity to bait an tweak it a little bit. And then, I think, a highway bill, they have to do. Outside of that, I think you'll get resolutions on national sweet potato week and those kind of things going through to keep the members in town and keep the...
COOKThey may even make it a month.
REHMYeah, yeah. Donna Brazile, do you see both immigration and the highway bill being acted on?
BRAZILEI agree. I think those are two important issues. Look, there are over 100,000 highway projects across the country and if Congress fails to act on that initiative, clearly 700,000 plus people will be out of work. The states are now scrambling to figure out how to extend the money to get things done until Congress acts. There are proposals on the table. Some proposals are paid for. Some of them call for additional tax increases in terms of gas tax increases.
BRAZILEBut I do think that's one issue that will not get kicked too far down the road. I agree with Congressman Davis in terms of immigration reform. We have a real crisis on our border right now, with the 60, 70,000 young people, sometimes young women and their families coming across the border. That's created a great deal of not just uncertainty at the border, but I also believe that it's causing the United States to figure out how are we going to advance the issue of immigration reform.
BRAZILESo that might be another issue that will come up as well.
REHMCharlie Cook, who's in charge as far as Republicans are concerned?
COOKThat's an excellent question. You know, it's almost -- I think anarchy is probably too strong, but it's -- in the House, you would expect the Speaker of the House to be in charge, but given some of the rather exotic members that Speaker Boehner has to deal with, that's...
REHMExotic, that's an interesting word.
COOKWell, it's a nicer word than wacko, but -- that he's not completely in charge. I think you can say that Harry Reid is definitely in charge in the Senate. No question about that. But just to play off of what my colleagues have said, trade promotion authority, transpacific -- they're not going anywhere. I mean, they're not...
REHMEx-Im Bank, why has that become such a controversial...
COOKWell, it's sort of the role -- I mean, that at least gets to philosophical things, where what's the role of government and some conservatives believe it's not the role of government to come up with low cost loans to buy U.S. goods. I mean, you know, I hope we extend the Export Import Bank, but at least that's got some philosophical underpinnings. Most of these things don’t.
COOKAnd but part of this comes to leadership used to be -- or it used to be an assumption if you didn't want to cast tough votes, you shouldn't run for Congress. And now, one of the hallmarks of leadership for each side is protecting your members, keeping them from having to cast difficult votes. And that's a lot of what's happening in the Senate. I don't want to put my folks in a bad position so we're just not gonna have a vote on it.
ORNSTEINYou know, Diane, just -- this gets to the appropriations bills and the Export-Import Bank as well. The reason that things have broken down in the Senate is basically Reid will not allow bills on the floor that have open amendments on the appropriations side.
ORNSTEINIt used to be -- because we're heading into this period where the Senate elections are particularly hot and there will be gotcha amendments. Now, it used to be that they would work these things out, the leaders, and the committee would stick together on the floor. That's all gone. Now, what it means is we're going to head to October 1 when the fiscal year begins, a month before the election.
ORNSTEINOne, we may have a confrontation over the Export-Import Bank that could potentially lead to a shutdown of a portion of the government, but we're going to have chaos and we're going to have -- I think what Democrats will want is a clean continuing resolution to take this through the election. Republicans are going to be looking for a fight on this. And we're going to have, right before the election, maybe the 8 percent of Americans who approve of Congress will finally start to say to themselves, what was I thinking?
REHMTom Davis, do both the Congress and the president share responsibility for what looks like a deadlock?
DAVISWell, I think they all share in the responsibility. I don't think there's any question about it. And now, whether they're equal share or not, I think we can debate. But I think you've seen very little in the way of presidential leadership on these issues. You've seen no coordination between the House and Senate at all. They don't even meet on the same weeks sometimes.
REHMThey don't talk to each other, do they?
DAVISWell, not only that, the Republicans and Democrats in each chamber don't talk to each other so it's a complete mess at this point.
BRAZILEBut when you talk about presidential leadership, I mean, look, Speaker Boehner has said on many occasions that he doesn't want the president to interfere. He doesn't want the president to go out there and tout immigration reform. So for months, the president did not for fear that he would cause some eruption in the House Republican caucus in the House.
BRAZILESo clearly, the president has provided leadership not just on the extended unemployment insurance, which we haven't talked about, but that's something that Congress has left languishing at the table. He's tried to provide leadership on immigration reform, but the Republicans say no, we don't trust the president. So I think, at this point, we cannot focus on who's to blame.
BRAZILEWe need to figure out if we can move some of these issues off the table so that we don't go through another government shutdown that will cause the economy billions of dollars at a time when the economy is slowly recovering.
REHMGo ahead, Tom.
DAVISDiane, I don't think we'll see a shutdown. I think Republicans, they touched the hot stove a year ago. I think they're beyond that. You saw the leadership last time just cave in on the debt ceiling altogether. They're not going to take any tough votes before this elections. If that means a clean resolution, so be it. They're going to get this out of the way and get to the election.
ORNSTEINThat's right. A Republican friend of mine said that Speaker Boehner has removed all the sharp objects from the room. I mean, to do everything he can to stop them from doing anything self destructive in the month before the election. So I agree with Tom. I don't think we will have a shutdown, although, you know, certainly looks like it could.
REHMBut let's take this highway bill. Let's take the highway trust fund. Runs out of money September, what, 31 or 30? What happens then?
COOKWell, it's not even running out September 30. It's leading into this peak of the construction season. They have to keep some reserve money. So we already have notices going to the states that they're going to have less money available to them. States, even if they anticipate that this will be resolved down the road, are going to be very reluctant to make commitments for big projects without knowing what's going to happen.
COOKThis is, I think, the wonderful best example of dysfunction at work. You have bipartisan proposals. We know that the biggest problem here is that the gasoline tax has not been pulling in the revenue that it used to. One reason is that we've been through rough economic times. People drive less. Another is we have more fuel efficient cars so less revenue is coming in.
COOKThere are other ways of paying for this. You can now borrow money for next to nothing. But you've got all these plans out there and you have a weak leadership. I think, in this case, especially on the Republican side, that simply will not entertain anything that's called a tax increase, even if it's offset by other revenue cuts.
REHMHow could the gas tax be offset? How would you see...
DAVISWell, you could raise the gas tax. I mean, what they're talking about are taking 10 years of cuts to pay for six months of revenue, which is just absurd to anybody with any kind of understanding of how this works. They don’t want to take any tough votes at all.
REHMFormer Virginia Congressman, Tom Davis. Short break here. Your calls when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Just before the break, we were talking about a possible increase in the gasoline tax to pay for the highway bill. Here's an email saying, "I truly don't understand why Speaker Boehner does not bring bills to the floor he could pass with both moderate Republicans and Democrats. He would be a hero to most Americans that want to see something get done. Let the Tea Party have a fit. Americans want something done."
DAVISWell, Diane, let me say, the speaker's brought a lot more bills to the floor than Harry Reid has in the Senate by a large margin. And the House has passed a lot of legislation. It's parked over in the Senate and won't go anywhere. But the adage is when you're the leader, you don't want to pass things over the objection of the majority of your caucus. If you do that, you're not going to be the leader anymore.
DAVISSo we've had this majority of a majority rule basically in place in the House. It is -- on a few occasions, it's been (word?), but for the most part that's the way it works.
REHMBut Tom Davis, what's going to happen when the highways fall apart? What are the -- and the bridges and the...
DAVISWell, Diane, the House will pass a pill. I don't have any doubt about that. The question is will the Senate accept it? That they -- we are on two completely different paths here in terms of what that offset, what the pay for for this is going to be. But the House will pass a bill and they will have a narrative that they can go and explain something...
BRAZILEBut the Senate has already passed. I mean, we often talk about the lack of action, but the Senate panel has already passed a $265 billion highway bill, part of a larger transportation bill. What the House is talking about is a $9 billion patch to get us through this period so we don't run out of funds. And the question is, are we going to go long or are we going to go small in terms of solving the problem? I think we should go long so that we don't have to have this conversation in another six months.
ORNSTEINThat's one part of it. I think the other part of it is that the bill that the House will pass will have as its offsets probably taking money from poor people. And they'll take it out of discretionary domestic spending on food stamps and other programs like that. And the Senate's not going to accept that.
REHMSo the idea of raising the gas tax to pay for the highway bill off the table, Charlie?
COOKWell, I mean, keep in mind that for -- let's say you're a Republican member and let's say you think we ought -- you were personally sympathetic to raising the gasoline gas.
REHMHow long has it been since we've raised it?
COOKIt's 20 something years.
DAVISAnd then it didn't go for transportation, but I'm not going to get into that.
BRAZILEThat's right. I won't either. I was there with you as a staffer.
COOKRight. But the thing about it is somebody's going to run against you in a Republican primary saying you raise taxes. I mean, simple as that. But to the caller's question, if Speaker Boehner went to -- violated the Hastert Rule, which actually isn't a rule but violated it several times, it's a matter of time before they kick him out. And what will he have accomplished being kicked out during the middle of the session. And so really, it's only a temporary option because long term, that's not -- you know, he's got to kind of follow his members a little bit.
REHMWell, where else is the money going to come from, Donna?
DAVISWell, if you're not going to raise taxes or fees, there are other proposals that will put more toll roads out there, which is another form of tax. We just don't call it a tax because the consumer, you know, the citizen pays it directly. But that's another proposal that's on the table as well.
REHMNorm, what would Republicans have to gain for not authorizing funding for the highway trust fund? What would they gain?
ORNSTEINWell, if you're looking at House Republicans for example, within their own districts, they're safe once they get past those primaries right now. And in a larger sense, if you want to look at this in a really tough almost Machiavellian way, if the economy takes a hit heading in to the election, it's the president's party that suffers more.
REHMSo if jobs are lost, as Donna has said.
ORNSTEINYeah. Now, I think that's --- I don't think you have a strategy to bring the economy down at this point but I don't think that that is having the impact that you would normally expect it would on members looking at the larger picture and saying, we're here to make sure the country benefits.
ORNSTEINYou know, there's another proposal out there, Donna -- excuse me, Diane, which is to create an infrastructure bank that is funded in part by having investments from the private sector using repatriated profits that they now have parked abroad. And that's gotten bipartisan support. You actually have a very innovative plan that John Delaney of Maryland has introduced with a substantial number of Tea Party supporters for it. But that's going nowhere as well.
ORNSTEINAnd I think, you know, another part of the dynamic here is heading into this cycle, congressional Republicans don't want anything that will give Barack Obama a signing ceremony, something that looks like they're actually making progress on things. And that also -- that's why I think it's far more likely that we'll get a patch that takes us through the election. And it won't come until late in the game. And it's already going to screw up a lot of the transportation projects...
REHMSuppose a bridge goes down, Donna.
DAVISSadly we've seen that happen in Minnesota with the Mississippi bridge, but the sad truth -- and we saw it last week in Brooklyn where the bridge was crumbling down...
DAVIS...this is a huge problem. Not just, you know, in terms of keeping people employed but it's about safety. And we need to focus on it.
DAVISWell, but Donna, let me just make this point. Whatever happens, the Republicans will have a bill. They will pass a bill. The Senate probably will have passed a bill. So each side will have their explanation if things go up. And everybody will go back to their respective corners and pin it on the other guy.
DAVISIn terms of giving the president signing ceremony, I think if it's on their terms they're going to do that. But I don't think anybody's right now willing to go up and leave their base and leave their...
ORNSTEINYeah, but on their terms, not a compromise. That's the problem.
REHMAll right. And what executive orders has President Obama talked about -- talked about making to go around Republicans, especially in regard to immigration, Charlie?
COOKWell, yes. The president has been specific but basically, if you won't pass an immigration bill I'll do what I can through executive order. And it's sort of traditional, particularly in second terms, for presidents to run up against a stone wall with congress and to try to circumvent congress as much as they can. But we are seeing the -- we are seeing courts starting to push back, for example, on the national labor relations board, the recess appointments and that.
COOKSo there's a limit to what you can get away with. But any chance there was of an immigration bill going through, and I think it was extremely remote to begin with, just evaporated with Eric Cantor's loss. And while there were a lot of moving parts in Cantor's loss, if you were going to attribute it to any single issue -- specific issue, oh absolutely, it was immigration. But there were other aspects to it as well.
REHMDonna, what about the president signing in executive order earlier this year for his cabinet to look at ways to help underachievement among young black people?
BRAZILEWell, there's no question that the president is finding -- looking for ways within the existing law, the existing framework to ensure that we don't leave more kids behind. Not just in education, but looking at the criminal justice system. He's ordered the Justice Department, for example, to take a look at these sentencing guidelines.
BRAZILEBut I want to get back to immigration because I think we might have -- perhaps we might have a breakthrough. And that is the president's request in emergency funds to deal with this current crisis with the kids coming across the border.
REHMWe're going to do a show on that tomorrow as another...
BRAZILEAnd so he's requesting $2 billion. But this may give the Republicans, who I'm sure want another opportunity without going for a full immigration comprehensive bill to look at the law that was passed back in 2008 that allows these kids, if they come, to seek through the courts asylum. Perhaps this is a way for the Republicans to amend that law, at the same time give the Democrats the opportunity to say, we've made progress on some of the things we care about.
BRAZILEBut it's a $2 billion request and it'll be interesting to see how Speaker Boehner and Mr. McCarthy, now that he's the majority leader, will handle this issue.
DAVISWell, let me just say, this is full of mine fields whenever you get into this kind of an issue. What are you going to do with these kids? You going to keep them in the country? If you listened to Jeh Johnson yesterday, you couldn't tell what the intent and the policy of the administration was going to be in terms of where these kids are. But this is a very polarized society on this issue at this point. And they seem to have lined up in a partisan way.
DAVISSo it's an opportunity, I think, to get some funding on the border to expedite some of the adjudication of these cases quickly, maybe to add some border patrol. But I think if you go beyond that, we're going to get into the partisan high grass pretty quick.
ORNSTEINYeah, I don't see it as a breakthrough right now, maybe down the road. Right now I see it as another explosive device. And one reason is that you'll -- there'll be demands for offsets, even for 2 billion. And the demands that will be put forward are likely to be unpalatable. So we may not get this one resolved.
ORNSTEINAnd, you know, this is a really tough one to resolve I think for the reasons that Tom suggested. You've got these kids -- you have, you know, basically obligations under the refugee-related statutes. But it's clear that at least some of them are coming there because they think that this is a free ride for their kids and they're sending them over the border. And how you deal with children under these circumstances is excruciatingly difficult.
ORNSTEINAnd it kind of reminds me a little bit of what happened with the Cubans coming over during the Clinton governorship in Arkansas that -- in the Carter Administration. That was an absolute disaster for him. it cost him his election. And this is one that has, I think, explosive potential for a lot of people.
REHMSo last week the president told Republicans, so sue me. What was he talking about?
ORNSTEINWell, they are -- he's going to be sued. Speaker Boehner still is vague about exactly what he will sue the president for, but it is for failing faithfully to execute the laws, to put it in different grammar.
REHMIn regard to...
ORNSTEINWell, we're talking about a whole host of things. And there are multiple options here. It starts with elements of the Affordable Care Act. It turns to immigration. It is the use of signing statements, executive orders, executive actions. The reality is -- I mean, it's a very interesting set of realities. One is that Obama has actually had far fewer executive orders, many fewer signing statements that actually said he wouldn't use the law.
ORNSTEINOne instance where I think it was abuse, which was the prisoner exchange for Bergdahl. And at the same time if you look at when signing statements began to be used as almost a line item veto with President Bush saying, this portion of the law I'm not going to abide by or I won't necessarily, the brainchild of Samuel Alito when he was in the Justice Department, as a way to make an end run around congress.
ORNSTEINNow you have a number of justices on the Supreme Court who have believed in a unitary executive and strong executive powers. Whether they'll react the same way if a lawsuit gets to them now with a different president is going to be an interesting...
REHMHow likely is he to sue?
DAVISWell, I think it's a huge political blunder for the Speaker right now. The D triple C, the Democratic campaign arm or House Democrats raised a record amount of money off of this. This is getting a Democratic base, which is more (word?) and tired all of a sudden on their feet. And in an off-year election which is all about turnout, that's not what you want to do. Did it arouse the Republican base with something he could throw to his -- to the Tea Party groups? Absolutely, but it also aroused the other base. And that's something Republicans do not want to do.
REHMDo you agree, Donna?
BRAZILEOh, absolutely. And when the president said, sue me, I kept saying, absolutely. Go ahead. Try to sue him for doing his job when House Republicans and others are not doing their job. This was the most energizing thing I've seen Speaker Boehner do in the past few months.
REHMDemocratic strategist Donna Brazile and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Going to open the phones here, 800-433-8850. Let's go first to Terence in Dallas, Texas. Hi, you're on the air.
TERENCEThank you. Good morning.
TERENCEA couple comments. First, toll roads are horrible. Because of the way the highways were funded in Texas, almost every new road is a toll road. And by far it costs a lot more money than an additional 5 cents per gallon of gas. So it's a bad idea. The other comment one of the gentlemen made, I wouldn't care if the Speaker of the House were Republican, Democrat or Independent. If the moderate and one of the other party would vote for something that doesn't agree with their base, if they're not willing to do that they should step down. Because at that point, it seems like their interests is more important than what the interests of the American people are.
REHMWhat do you think, Charlie?
COOKWell, I mean, I think what the caller has put his point on -- finger on is that, you know, in Texas the anti-tax environment is so strong that they have a choice. It's toll road or no road. And my -- I would bet you that the caller would rather have a toll road than no road at all. And those were effectively the options because when taxes are effectively taken off the table, you know, there's really not a lot of options left.
DAVISI'll just say, in Virginia, as I sit on the toll road authority out there in (word?) and chair that as part of our airport authority. And the people who oppose the taxes also oppose the tolls but they're driving the roads. So everybody wants something for free. And unfortunately, as Charlie said, you take taxes off the table, it's the only option you've got left.
ORNSTEINJust in response to Terence's other point, I have a little sympathy for John Boehner. It's -- he, I think, wants to do things that fit a larger picture. He's dealing with a very difficult caucus. And what he's done in instances where he's brought things up to get more Democratic votes than Republican, he waits until the very last minute, lets -- gives them all the rope they need. And then finally when they've reached a point where many of them realize they could hang themselves, he's able to bring them up.
ORNSTEINYou can only do that so many times. And I actually think the suit in some ways may be an attempt to head off a much worse problem, the I word, impeachment. And my guess is that it's going to have the opposite effect. I think you have whipped up a lot of people into an almost frenzy in believing that Barack Obama has crossed every line in terms of an imperial executive. And you get reinforcement with talk radio, Wall Street Journal editorials all over the place. I will be surprised frankly if we end up going through the remainder of Obama's term without impeachment hitting the House.
REHMAnybody else agree with that?
COOKI think Norm's points, a good point though, is that threatening to sue the president, or in fact suing the president, may have been the mildest option. I mean, given members a not insignificant number of members it would sign up tomorrow with an impeachment, maybe this -- maybe Boehner saw this as the least objectionable avenue.
DAVISWell, just look at Eric Cantor. He started to go along and he starts to raise the debt ceiling. He starts to reopen the government and his voters turned on him very quickly. The Republican primary base is a very angry rabid base against the president this time. So I understand why the Speaker did what he did. But in terms of midterm politics, I think it was a blunder, that's all I'm saying.
REHMDonna, do you expect a move toward impeachment?
BRAZILEThere's no question that you hear it a lot from Republicans. During the primary season you heard it much more. We shouldn't -- I mean, I listen to some of the talk radio I can't help but listen to it because it's all over the place. The truth is is that this is just an election year stunt, that I think the Speaker is tried now there to appease his base.
BRAZILEI mean, they are -- as Congressman Davis mentioned, they are angry. They want to see action against this president but it's counterproductive. It's counterproductive not just for the country, but it's counterproductive in terms of electoral strategy because I think it will have the opposite effect. It will mobilize Democrats and Independents to once again see the Republicans as the part of gridlock, obstruction and hyper partisanship.
REHMAll right. And when we come back, we'll hear more from our listeners. We'll get a sense of how they're feeling about this whole mess. Stay with us.
REHMAs we talk about what will or will not get accomplished in this Congressional session before mid-terms, we'll go right back to the phones to Fred in Glendale, Mo. You're on the air.
FREDYeah, listen, I'm -- I've got the Saint Louis Business Journal in front of me and there's an article that says, Cantor defeat may push Wagner higher. Now that would be Ann Wagner from Todd Akins old Second Congressional District here in Missouri. And I'm wondering, she voted to shut down the government during the budget debate, when they threw the temper tantrum in the house to the -- with the Obama -- tying Obamacare to the budget crisis. And I'm just wondering, I don't think this bodes very well for situations within the Republican Caucus. And are we going to experience down the road some more government shutdown?
REHMThat's what everybody is wondering, Norm.
ORNSTEINWell, you know, Tom suggests that they won't shut it down this time. And I think the Speaker recognizes that it would be absolute catastrophe. But you've got this huge force outside Congress. It's not just the primary voters and some of the funders, it's media outlets that gain a lot by promoting division and confrontation.
ORNSTEINAnd it's going to take every bit of skill on the part of the Speaker, the new Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and others to avoid a catastrophe before the election. What I fear is that in the process of doing it, it'll set things up for another big problem after the election.
REHMAll right, let's...
ORNSTEINAnd we may get something that takes us through November and then a shutdown after that.
REHMLet's go to...
DAVISCan I just say one thing on Ann Wagner?
DAVISI think she's -- she's a former ambassador. I think she's one of the more thoughtful, respected members of the junior -- now, she is a Republican. I mean, my gut on here is she's likely to be a Senate nominee against McCaskill. But she is well regarded among her colleagues.
REHMOkay. To Ellen in Exeter, New Hampshire. You're on the air.
ELLENHi. Thank you for taking my call.
ELLENI have called down because we have the most dysfunctional Congress that I have ever seen in my lifetime. I called down, when they shut down, that gentleman before me just talked about when they shut down the government. I have called down to the ACLU and have asked them, is there any way that we can sue this Congress for not doing their job.
ELLENThey are not doing what the American people tell them to do. They're in there for themselves with -- and doing what they want to do. And the ACLU said to me, it is being discussed. They are not doing their job and they should be sued. So it's so funny that they just threatened to sue the president, when they're doing the exact same thing.
UNKNOWN MALEYou know we have elections. I mean, that's what this is all about. It's not about suing. It's about elections. And if you don't like them, throw them out.
BRAZILESadly, we have so many seats in Congress that are not in play, they should call reserve seats, move them into the...
DAVISBut in New Hampshire, they are in play. In New Hampshire they are in play.
BRAZILEThat's right. Vote.
REHMOkay. Here's -- here are two comments. First, a tweet. "Obama's approach is being confrontational." And a related email, "Can the panelists explain why the president is not sitting down with the two leaders, majority and minority, in each chamber, just the five of them on a weekly basis to hash out these issues? That's what Reagan did with Tip O'Neill." Charlie Cook.
COOKWell, I think you're dealing with people who don't like each other, who don't respect each other and that would see that as a waste of time. And I mean I think it's sad that that is the case. But, you know, if you don't want to work with someone, sitting across a coffee table and look at -- staring at each other isn't going to, I mean, there's a mindset here that's a part of the problem, not that they're not in physical proximity with each other very often. I mean, these are people -- I mean, look at the Senate. You have two leaders that despise each other and just barely speak.
COOKNow, you know, the Senate was designed to be slow and deliberate and cumbersome, and boy it's good at that. And then you have 30 years of intense partisanship injected. But we're just sort of at a unique point in time when we've got people at the top who just, as I say, despise each other and barely speak.
REHMBut they -- but the point our caller was making, it seems to me, is none of these people are putting country before personal animosity.
COOKI, no, I agree with that. But the thing is, the question is, you want to put two scorpions in a jar? I mean that's kind of what we're talking about here.
REHMBut they took...
ORNSTEINWell, you also -- they look at the world very differently and through different lenses. And their constituents do too.
REHMOnce they're up there. Once they're up there. But they took an oath to the American people.
DAVISBut Diane, the question is, is that oath to compromise if it's a bad deal. And so it just goes back and forth. But let me make this point, that President Obama has something that LBJ and Reagan didn't have, and the super PACs that are out there that have more money than you can raise for your party.
DAVISAnd you've got media models that are business models that are polarizing models. You've got the Internet, which the crap-to-content ratio coming over that is so high. And people are just getting a lot of misinformation.
BRAZILEBut President Reagan had what President Obama clearly does not have, and that is moderates. Moderates in the Congress who are willing to cross the so-called divided line and seek compromise, seek solutions, seek common-sense legislation. You don't have that today. You know, before President Obama took office and had his first night in the White House, there were meetings that the Republicans held and said, you know, basically we're not going to cooperate. Mitch McConnell, the majority -- minority leader in the Senate, said that he would be a one-term president.
BRAZILESo they sat down early on and decided that they would not seek common ground. And I think, to the president's credit, he has attempted to find common ground. But it's very difficult in this partisan environment.
ORNSTEINYou know, the five leaders actually did sit down just over a week ago to talk about Iraq as the situation was deteriorating. And at least they didn't come out of there with cheap shots. I mean that's one where they did see a national interest. But, you know, this is not a president who likes to schmooze with members the way Bill Clinton did, say. But at the same time, I have to give him this credit. He has reached out multiple times to both Boehner and McConnell. It is not, as they see it, in their interest to meet with the president.
ORNSTEINThe more they meet with the president, the more it looks like they are sleeping with the enemy to their own constituents. And Mitch McConnell's up this time. And even though he didn't have to worry in the end about his primary challenge, he's worried about a group of Republicans who see him as a part of the problem and not a part of the solution. And being a part of the solution means you don't cooperate with the president. So it makes it very hard to have this kind of meeting of the minds. And for all the reasons that Tom Davis suggested. There are outside forces that are just very different than we've had before.
REHMLet's go to Harrisburg, Pa. Hi there, Tom.
TOMHi, Diane. Love you, love the show.
TOMI think the best thing Bill Gates or the brightest minds in computers can do for us in this country is to say, we'll go state by state and we're going to come up with a fair legislative redistricting from -- based on computer analysis -- take the politicians totally out of it -- and have redistricting. Unless we have legislative redistricting, this country is just going to get worse when it comes to gridlock.
COOKI think Tom has a very good point. I mean, I'm not sure that specific solution will work, but I think it may -- if I could wave a magic want and institute one political reform, it would be redistricting reform. And Iowa does a fabulous job. It's as close to putting lines where god would put lines as you could get.
REHMHow did they do it?
COOKThey have a group of statisticians in a basement someplace that, without regard to politics, draw the lines. Now, granted, Iowa is a lily-white state where all the counties are square, so it's not exactly the toughest place to do. California has come up with a very convoluted way, but it seems to have worked the first time that it's been done. But as a practical matter, state legislatures are not going to institute redistricting reform. They're not going to give away power voluntarily.
COOKSo realistically, the only place you're likely to get this is where voters can push it through on a ballot. And that's where, if the caller wants to get Bill Gates and whoever else on board in initiative states, that actually is a possibility.
ORNSTEINDiane, the problem are these single-party districts, of which about 80 percent of the House is that way. We know what parties...
ORNSTEIN80 percent are single -- we know what party they're going to elect. It's a question of who wins. So everybody orients toward the primaries. It's -- gerrymander is clearly a major culprit in there, but so is just residential sorting patterns and so is the Voting Rights Act. I mean, when you take a look at all of these -- have an effect and a polarizing effect on this.
COOKYeah, and I, you know, it's the big sort. The new Pew survey, the giant survey just reinforces this. People are moving into areas where they're surrounded by like-minded individuals. And Tom has a great point, I think, about the South. What has happened with redistricting there, partly because of the way the Voting Rights Act was applied, and we got a lot of majority-minority districts, but it made southern Republican districts lily white. And they behave in a very different fashion. I'd love to see redistricting reform.
COOKI think far more important at this point is to move towards open primaries and expand the electorate, so you get more people voting. This new idea of a national primary day, I think, makes a whole lot of sense. And if we could do that with preference voting, where you have more of an impact for basically moderate people, because you're going to have extreme partisans having less of an impact, we could get somewhere.
REHMI want to get back to what might get done. What about reforms to Veterans Affairs?
BRAZILEWell, that is a critical issue. And Bernie Sanders and John McCain, they have a great solution to allow veterans in many of these regions to go outside the VA network to ensure that they get the care they need, so that -- and also to reduce the backlog, to upgrade the entire system of how we enter people into the system to make sure there's follow-through and follow-up. There's a lot that can be done and I think this is one area that we might find some bipartisan agreement. Let's hope we find that. My father, before he passed away, was in the VA care for many, many years.
BRAZILEHe was a prostate cancer survivor. He received good treatment, but getting him, you know, into the hospital, into the clinic, getting the kind of treatment, it took a lot of phone calls and a lot of pressure. I want to get back to this whole issue of redistricting because I agree that is one area where we can reform the system. But if we don't reform the amount of money that we have in the system, campaign finance, that -- we will never get back to the point where we have representative government. Right now, we have government of the special interests, by the special interests, paid for with special interest money. And you don't need that much money in politics to win an election.
BRAZILEWhat happens is that when these lawmakers are in town for the three days or four days that they're here, all they're doing is raising money from the special interests.
REHMTom Davis, what about mental health reform?
DAVISWell, I think that needs a thoughtful approach and you're not going to get it done in the next few months. But clearly that's a piece of the problem. Let me say this on campaign finance reform. I was a strong opponent of McCain-Feingold, which is where this started. You know, Citizens United put it on steroids.
DAVISBut basically, by starving the parties of money -- the parties have been a centering force in American democracy for 200 years -- I said, where do you think this money's going to go? So instead of going to the parties, it's out there on the wings now and it has made it worse. So every time Congress seems to touch it, it gets worse.
COOKDiane, you brought up mental health. And I have his theory, it's probably simplistic, but that liberals can screw things up and conservatives can screw things up. But if you really want to completely bollocks it up, it takes both. And between the difficulty that ACLU types have made it in terms of getting people institutionalized who need to be institutionalized, and on the conservative side budget cuts, where there just simply aren't institutions and programs to take care of these people who really shouldn't be out walking around -- between the left and the right, we have a totally dysfunctional system.
COOKAnd when we see people shooting things up and people that, heck, they not only shouldn't have a gun, they shouldn't be walking around the street. That's a problem.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I have heard from all of you the word dysfunction, dysfunction, dysfunction. Is democracy -- our democracy still working? Donna.
BRAZILEIt's on life-support in my judgment.
BRAZILEI feel, first of all, we have a huge majority of Americans who are not participating in the electoral process. Some of them apathetic. Some of them have just said, you know what? Why bother? I think we need to do a better job of teaching young people civics, the importance of voting, to give them the history. That's one thing. Secondly, we've got to get back to the political parties going out there educating voters about what's on the ballot, what's at stake, and not just tearing the other side apart. That's also an important function.
BRAZILEBut, yes, I do think that our democracy, as I learned it as a child growing up in southern Louisiana -- I say that because my brother here on the other side of me is from north Louisiana, there's a distinction there -- but there's no question that when we were growing up, we knew the importance of voting and why it was important that we got out each and every time to select a candidate that we believed in and that represented our values.
REHMAnd that Congress work toward compromise.
ORNSTEINYou know, I'm very worried, Diane. More than I have been in my lifetime. The Supreme Court, in the Hobby Lobby decision, reinforced the idea that corporations are people. And in effect, they're giving them all the rights that people have along with all the rights from protection from lawsuits, special tax rates, that corporations have -- at a time when inequality has grown to a historic high level and where cynicism, corrosive cynicism about government has increased. And government is doing nothing of significance to erase that cynicism or ameliorate it. And it's a big problem.
ORNSTEINYou know, having said that, we've still managed to meander through this better than European countries have in terms of dealing with the problems in the global economy. It's not all lost, but there are danger signs out there that are real.
REHMTom Davis, as a former member of Congress, how concerned are you?
DAVISWell, I'm concerned. I think I agree with Norm, that when you get to crisis, we still work it out. TARP was ugly. I was a whip for TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program. It took us two times. But we're not Greece. When there is a crisis, you bring the parties together. And that's how we operate best. We're pretty inefficient (word?)
COOKLast night, my 21-year-old son, Jeff, asked me, is it ever going to get better? And my response was, well ever is a really, really long time. Let's -- in my lifetime, maybe not. Your lifetime, yeah, I think so. The pendulum goes too far and sometimes -- and eventually it'll turn around.
REHMI hope you're right. Charlie Cook, Tom Davis, Donna Brazile, Norm Ornstein, let's hope for the best. Thank you all.
COOKThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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