"The Mike Newcomb Show"
Sat Feb 3, 2007 04:20

2/2/07 "The Mike Newcomb Show" 1480 AM Phx AZ

Amazon.com: House of Ill Repute: Reflections on War, Lies, and ...
Amazon.com: House of Ill Repute: Reflections on War, Lies, and America's Ravaged Reputation: Books: William Rivers Pitt,Cindy Sheehan by William Rivers Pitt ...


Amazon.com: The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and ...
"For us," they write, "Congress has always been the first branch. ... complete abdication of their role as the Article 1 (i.e. first) branch of government. ...

From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com
Citizens baffled by the House of Representatives' allocation of its time in July -- spent mostly on flag burning, stem-cell research, gay marriage, the Pledge of Allegiance, religion and gun control -- can find cogent explanations for its political priorities in this slim, forceful volume. Not that the subjects that ate up the House calendar last month are addressed here; they are not. It is the institution of Congress that Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein dissect, and they find it in appalling condition.

The authors are members of what, sadly, may be a disappearing breed in Washington: independent-minded, knowledgeable experts whose concern for process is stronger than their desires for particular outcomes. They are means guys in an age dominated by ends. And they most emphatically do not believe that any particular end justifies craven or extra-legal means.

Mann and Ornstein are Washington fixtures, Mann at the Brookings Institution and Ornstein at the American Enterprise Institute. You've seen them both on television and quoted countless times; they are the sort of pundits that reporters rely on. They have been friends, sometimes rivalrous ones, since graduate school; they studied together at the University of Michigan and were congressional fellows together in 1969. Their personal politics are left-of-center, but, as they declare at the beginning of the book, their strongest partisanship is institutional. "For us," they write, "Congress has always been the first branch." Their devotion to Congress has won them admirers from all points on the political spectrum. A blurb from former Republican speaker of the House Newt Gingrich makes the point: "Mann and Ornstein understand well the glaring gap between the framers' design and today's reality."

The Founding Fathers quite deliberately described Congress in the first article of the Constitution, the presidency in the second. The authors of a revolution designed to overthrow a monarch did not want to put a comparably powerful chief executive officer in the king's place. Congress, explicitly granted the power to raise and spend money, was to have the upper hand.

Over more than two centuries of American history, the founders' intention to create a strong legislature has repeatedly been tested -- and sometimes evaded, as in recent years. Until now, the pendulum has always swung back toward the Capitol after periods of unusually strong White House influence. Mann and Ornstein fervently want this to happen again; their book explains why they consider this so important and provides some ideas for how it might happen. But fundamental change will not come from tinkering reforms, they argue; only angry voters can force the House and Senate to correct themselves.

Their account of the recent decline of Congress, and particularly the House, is scathing but difficult to dispute. They blame a poisonously partisan division in both houses and in the country for much of today's congressional bickering and irrelevance. Partisan warfare led Republicans to cater to "the base," the country's most conservative Republicans, which explains the House's bizarre agenda in July. Mann and Ornstein trace the origins of partisan warfare back to the 1980s, when a contemptuous Democratic majority dominated the House without any fear or expectation that the Republicans would ever regain control. But Gingrich's forces did, of course, leading first to the spectacle of a wholly partisan impeachment of a sitting president and then to the first period of extended GOP control of both Congress and the White House since the 1920s.

"The arrival of unified Republican government in 2001 transformed the aggressive and active GOP-led Congress of the Clinton years into a deferential and supine body, one extremely reluctant to demand information, scrub presidential proposals, or oversee the executive," Mann and Ornstein write. "The uncompromising assertion of executive authority by President Bush and Vice President Cheney was met with a whimper, not a principled fight, by the Republican Congress." The authors write contemptuously of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and his willingness to ignore House rules and traditions to ram through legislation to please the White House.

History is often ignored or forgotten in contemporary America, but not by Mann and Ornstein. Their argument is strengthened by their ability to put it in historical context, to demonstrate how far the current Congress has wandered from the legislature's traditional and constitutional role. Unfortunately, Mann and Ornstein let their own history complicate their narrative by repeatedly quoting their earlier writings. Their editor did them no favor by permitting these self-citations, which create a "We told you so" tone not conducive to making, or winning, an argument.

Even so, it is easy to recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Congress, how it works and how it should work. Hastert would be particularly well-served by spending a few hours with The Broken Branch. And if, as Mann recently predicted in The Post's Outlook section, Democrats win control of the House in November, this book will suddenly be useful to both parties: to the Democrats as a cautionary tale and a useful blueprint, to the Republicans as an insight into where they went wrong.

Reviewed by Robert G. Kaiser
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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