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Don't blame Congress for leaders' faults

By Julian E. Zelizer, Special to CNN
  • Sen. Evan Bayh cites failings of Congress when he said he wouldn't run again
  • Julian Zelizer says Americans have said Congress is broken for generations
  • He says there are institutional failings, but human failures also contribute
  • He says Democrats are asking why senators didn't achieve more when they had 60 votes

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book is "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security: From World War II to the War on Terrorism," published by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely about current events.

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- When Sen. Evan Bayh announced that he would step down from the Senate, he said that Congress had become a dysfunctional institution. "I love helping our citizens make the most of their lives, but I do not love Congress," Bayh lamented.

Bayh is not the only politician or pundit to issue this warning in recent months. There have been an abundance of proclamations that Congress no longer works.

Certainly, the argument has merits. Institutions and process matter very much in American politics. As many commentators, including myself, have written, the constant use of the filibuster by both parties, the power of interest groups and their lobbyists and the intense pressures to fundraise are just a few examples of why legislating is so difficult. There is no disagreement here.

But we must not blame it all on the institution and downplay the human failures of leadership either. At this point, Democrats must start to question two aspects of their performance in 2009. The first has been the White House strategy of allowing Congress to dictate the timing and substance of legislation. The second has to do with Sen. Harry Reid and his inability to keep his caucus united and to move major bills despite leading a sizable majority.

The reality is that passing legislation through Congress has never been easy. The nostalgia for better times is a constant refrain. During much of the 19th century, Congress was legendary for looking more like a boxing ring than a site of distinguished debate.

During the progressive era, a series of powerful House speakers caused grief for presidents as they obstructed legislation. President Teddy Roosevelt complained about the tyrannical powers of Speaker Joe Cannon, known as the "Czar" of the House, who controlled committee assignments and manipulated procedures that gave him the power to block proposals for government expansion. One observer said: "There is room for saying Cannon is even more powerful than the president of the United States."

Between the 1930s and 1970s, Southern Democrats dominated Congress by relying on the power of committee chairmanships. Mississippi Sen. James Eastland, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Civil Rights, proudly boasted that he had special pockets "put into my pants" in which he carried "those bills around in my pockets everywhere I went and every one of them was defeated."

"Judge" Howard Smith of Virginia, chairman of the House Rules Committee, famously obstructed one bill by simply leaving town so that his panel could not meet. He explained that he had to return to Virginia because his barn had caught fire.

Sen. Joseph Clark lambasted the conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans who thrived in this committee system -- the same period that Bayh recently looked back to with nostalgia -- as the "antithesis of democracy."

Writing in Playboy magazine in 1969, Missouri Democrat Richard Bolling, a champion of congressional reform, complained that "for a Democrat to become a chairman, he need only live long enough and get re-elected often enough to outdistance his colleagues. Eventually, he'll make it, although he may have the morals of a Mafia capo or the mind of a moron -- or both."

There was a cottage industry for scholars and journalists in the 1960s who wrote about how Congress was broken and could be fixed.

The complaints about heightened party polarization and a supermajority Senate have been standard since the 1970s. The trends that resulted in the current process were not invented in 2008. Rather they were the result of long-term changes such as the movement of moderates, Southern Democrats and liberal Northeastern Republicans, out of their respective parties as well as the impact of the 24-hour news cycle with cable television.

Yet during all these periods, before congressional reforms changed the way the institution worked, presidents and legislative leaders have still been able to produce significant breakthroughs. In the 19th century, the nation undertook massive territorial expansion and subsidized the construction of the railroads.

In the progressive era, Congress created administrative and regulatory controls over food and drugs, the railroads, economic trade and much more. Between the 1930s and 1970s, the nation witnessed the unprecedented expansion of domestic policy with the New Deal and Great Society.

Congress also created a national security state during the early Cold War. Even since the 1970s there have been big breakthroughs, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) and the reorganization of homeland security under President George W. Bush.

Laments about the congressional process are old and will always be with us. However, we can't put so much blame on our institutions that we ignore the failures of leadership.

Importantly, Congress has not been inactive during President Obama's first year despite popular perceptions.

According to Congressional Quarterly, Obama received a higher score for his presidential success rate in Congress than any other president in the last five decades, higher than Lyndon Johnson in 1965 or Dwight Eisenhower in 1953.

Nonetheless, Congress has clearly had trouble finishing work on some of the big ticket items that have been proposed, namely health care and climate change. There is some evidence that Democrats are ready to try a different strategic approach.

Sen. Chuck Schumer announced his support for using the budget reconciliation process, which prohibits a filibuster, to pass specific sections of health care reform. While Republicans have been comfortable using all Senate procedures this year, including the threat of a filibuster and holds on presidential appointments, Democrats have been much more hesitant to use this equally legitimate procedure.

But this announcement is just a start. There is a need for much more introspection about why Reid has had so much trouble reaching the kind of intra-party deals between moderates and liberals that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has achieved in the House, and whether President Obama is willing to undertake a different approach to dealing with the legislature.

If Democrats ignore these tough questions, focusing only on the flaws in procedures, they will find themselves in bad shape going into 2010.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.