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Sarah Binder on the Campbell Conversations

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Sarah Binder
Sarah Binder

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with one of the foremost authorities on the United States Congress. Sarah Binder is a Professor of Political Science at George Washington University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Among her many books are, "Stalemate: Causes and Consequences of Legislative Gridlock."

Program Transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is one of the foremost authorities on the United States Congress. Sarah Binder is a Professor of Political Science at George Washington University and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.. Among her many books are, “Stalemate: Causes and Consequences of Legislative Gridlock”. Two weeks out from the midterm elections, Seems like a great time to have her on the program. Professor Binder, welcome to the program. And thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.

Sarah Binder: Great. Thank you very much for having me.

GR: So let me just start with a basic question about the current state of Congress. How would you characterize the current state of health of Congress at the moment?

SB: Well, let me quote the sign I saw posted on a tree in my neighborhood. This is in 2013 at the height of the government shutdown. And of course I live in the D.C. suburbs where many people work for the federal government. The sign said, I don't think it was posted just for me, but the sign said, “Congress Sucks”. And true, Congress has improved a little bit in the public's eyes since 2013 almost a decade ago. But not really, Congress struggles. It’s not in great shape. The public is largely dismissive of it, often times distrustful of it. And think largely that the Congress works in the interests of the wealthy when it works at all. Leaving out large, large, large populations and groups of Americans.

GR: So that's the public's view and it's pretty bad. I want to come back to that. But you as an expert watching Congress, do you think it's actually that bad or do you think the state of health of Congress, maybe as a public we're misdiagnosing it a little bit. What do you think?

SB: Well, I haven't, I suppose unfortunately or fortunately, I have some sympathies for the American Congress, given the difficulties that it faces in trying to legislate. But by and large, the state of Congress is not very good, even from the perspective of those who study it. And oftentimes, if you look to what members, or certainly what congressional staff will say, and I think there are just a number of key problems for it, understanding that sometimes there's a perfect storm of sorts. And this spring and summer has been one from the Democrat’s perspective. They've been able to legislate on some key problems that have been lingering, some degree of tightening of gun laws, infrastructure funding, a first attack at global warming. So I want to be sure when we talk about the difficulties Congress faces that it's not all grim news and it does retain some capacity here. But I think the first, if I had to have a ticker list of what worries me in unranked order, it’s capacity for solving problems. And that's both a sort of technical problem as well as a political problem. So the technical problem here is that most of the resources, if you look at, say, committees and who they hire is put in communication staff. It's put at the political staff, it's not put into policy focused committee staffers. And that's a trend we've been seeing in the House and the Senate developing over time. And it's hard to make good policy if you don't have experts or expertise and access to that type of policy information. Now, making policy and making laws is not just about expertise, right? It’s about political knowledge, like what do I have to do? What type of provisions are going to build secure enough support? So, I don't want to say if we miraculously invested, if Congress invested and gave itself funds to invest in policy expertise that its problems would go away, but it's hard to tackle those problems. And certainly its usual responses just to write ambiguous statutes, delegate that to the executive branch, to bureaucracies where the experts are. And in theory, when Congress delegates like that, they actually, you know, part of the tradeoff is that, okay, we'll do a lot of rigorous oversight, but without policy staff and sort of oriented members to do that type of oversight, oversight doesn't happen. For better or for worse, we might want the EPA making rules and making decisions about polluters and what solutions are. But just to keep in mind, and we can come back to this, the conservative majority in the court has sort of sent out a flare that’s said that's not going to fly with us anymore. Now, it may or may not. But as the court tries to get Congress to be more specific, you can imagine the outcome is no legislation at all. So I worry about policy capacity for starters. I think the other big bucket are sort of the politics that complicate lawmaking, and that's certainly captured by this notion of partisan polarization, which I'm not so much troubled about ideological differences in the Congress, one party maybe favoring greater world government, one party objecting to a role of strong role of government. But I worry about the manifestation of polarization in just in terms of partisan team play. Your team is for it, so my team has got to be against it. And that's harmful to solving problems in the U.S. Congress. First of all, because most of the rules require that Congress seek large bipartisan supermajorities. You can't, there are some exceptions, but small majorities can't often solve problems. They need to get buy in from the opposite party. And it's hard to get buy when there's an electoral environment that polarizes and penalizes you for working with the other party. Again, solutions can be made. They do manage at times, but when they can't solve problems of, say, immigration reform, which I think both parties agree it's a problem. There are some issues the parties disagree whether these are problems, but immigration, I think they, both parties want to see some changes. But the solution is just a bucket to the executive branch or to the president who acts, you know, we have the DACA program to prevent deportation of children who are brought here undocumented but were brought here as children. But that's tenuous. There's no statute there's no law that undergirds DACA, which leads, first for courts to get involved, and it leads in the sort of state of suspended existence for DACA recipients who don't know whether a conservative majority of the court or a conservative president will undo their status and force them and allow them to be deported. So polarization expertise, we can get into more pointed sort of partisan problems on what I would say is the Republican side of the aisle in terms of who's attracted to come to Washington in the first place. I do think that's more of a problem on the Republican side today than the Democratic side. But also it harms the ability of the House to function and increasingly the Senate to function as kind of a place where problems people go to solve problems.

GR: I want to come back to that issue of who tends to run for Congress and why a little bit later. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and we're speaking with Sarah Binder, a professor at George Washington University and an expert on the U.S. Congress. I want to go back, though, to the public's view here just for a second, and certainly congressional approval ratings, as measured by reliable surveys, are very low as you know. They're kind of a more elaborate way of saying Congress sucks as you said at the beginning. But if we go back even before those kinds of surveys were regularly done, certainly there have been moments in our past where Congress has not been viewed very positively. I mean, one of my favorite, Mark Twain quotes, for example, is he's writing this, he says, “Reader, suppose you were an idiot and suppose you're a member of Congress, but I repeat myself.” So I'm just curious when in history do you think has Congress enjoyed this low of public esteem as it does now? Or is this, do you think uniquely low?

SB: As you said, where we are somewhat limited because we have polling data, pretty routine questioning about Congress with similar questions over time, certainly to the early 80’s. We can get them back to the early 70’s, but then they get kind of kind of sporadic. So before the seventies we have historical accounts, so it's a little hard to make over-time comparisons. But I think what we can learn is by looking at the moments when approval went up, and the most stark version of that is right in the wake of 9/11, the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in (2001). A public approval of the Congress goes up and it stays there. It stays pretty high for a couple of months. And if you look at what went on in Congress, first of all there are lots and lots of images of Democrats and Republicans standing on the Capitol steps singing together, right? You had an outpouring of political and legislative support for a particular set of policy responses to the 9/11 crises. And those were passing on bipartisan basis, supermajority bipartisan basis. And overall, that first two years of that, the Congress in the wake of 9/11, a whole host of issues that, if they were tightly tied to 9/11 they had robust political and congressional support. The further you got in terms of substance, education or other issues, the further you got away from national security and so forth, you begin to see these divisions reoccur. What do we take away from that? Well, you know, part of the reason the public dislikes Congress is that members of Congress run for Congress by running against Congress. Like, lawmakers are the number one offenders of this. And they had reason not to be critical of Congress. And so the messages that voters got, you know, sometimes we call this for the presidency, “rally around the flag”. There's a little rally around Congress and lawmakers themselves are partly responsible for that. A: they acted quickly, but also they stop criticizing each other and the institution. And that's, you know, part of what happens, right? We didn't really have as dire polarization then or partisanship then because the incentive to disagree in that narrow moment were low. But what does that mean, right? The economy starts to go down and so forth and public opinion always turns downward because the economy goes down and there are scandals in the news. And so it's almost the exception that proves the rule, right, that the stars have to be aligned for some sort of crisis that enables Congress to act on a bipartisan basis so that you're getting the support not from just your own partisans, but from across the board or closer to being across the board.

GR: So some observers of Congress have zeroed in on the fact that at least for the House of Representatives, as opposed to the Senate, I suppose we could say, well, if the Senate isn't any better than the House of Representatives, this isn't going to fix it. But have focused in on the fact that you have to run for election or reelection every two years and that election cycle is so short as being one of the problems. Do you think is that a red herring or do you think that's a real problem for Congress right now?

SB: Well, of course, that's in the Constitution. So it's always been a challenge. Is it more of a challenge today? Well, I think the, you know, on the one hand, I think it's important to think about this two year term in the context of elections generally. And certainly one of the key forces in these elections is campaign funding and campaign finance. And the cost of running elections has just been exorbitant, like more than a million, much higher than a million dollars being spent by incumbents for House elections. And, you know, in these Senate races. $60 - $70 million dollars. I mean, just extraordinary amounts of money, some coming from outside the campaigns and outside the districts and states. But it's extraordinarily expensive. And what does that mean? Bring us back to the two year term here. Lawmakers are spending an awful lot of time raising money. As we say, they walk across the street to nongovernment buildings where they can pick up the phone and quote unquote, “dial for dollars”. They're doing that a lot. And even if you're, you know, I'm somewhat, I don't know that money is like the scourge of American politics but it certainly takes time away from lawmakers who might otherwise be spending time doing more constructive use of their time. So they're always running. It's what my Brookings colleague Tom Mann has always called like the, “permanent campaign”, right? We don't distinguish between governing time and campaigning time it's the permanent campaign and that constant looking over your shoulder. If you're a Republican, looking to the right and you're a Democrat looking over your left shoulder to avoid a primary challenge which also speeds up the amount of time, sort of moves the earlier calendar date, where you have to pay attention to raise money. It's just all consuming.

GR: And if you combine that with the fact, as you mentioned earlier, that they're not investing in expertise and you've got a real expertise problem, you've got time and attention and the content there. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and my guest is George Washington University Political Science Professor Sarah Binder. And we've been discussing the state of the United States Congress. So I want to ask you a question about presidents now. Barack Obama, when he ran, he promised to elevate our politics and elevate the dynamic that goes on in Congress between Congress and presidents. Donald Trump promised he was going to, “drain the swamp”, as he put it, and Joe Biden promised a, “return to normalcy”. None of that happened. So my question to you is, can presidents do much to change the way Congress functions? Are things that they can help with?

SB: This is such a great question because the, I suppose the irony here, hinting where we're going, the irony is that the president is the most powerful person or institution or position in American government today. And it wasn't always so. 19th century we were talking about lawmakers and members of Congress and the president and the executive branch was just sort of quite small and much less consequential. But the president commands attention, commands attention across the country, across the globe, but he does not demand attention on Capitol Hill. That's like, I suppose, the irony here. And why is that? So I think certainly this partisan team play has been problematic in that the president is seen as a leader of the other party if you're in the other party. And so it's difficult for the president to use that, whatever national authority he might have or vantage point or reputation to kind of bridge differences, he can't really provide political cover to get big stuff done. And so he's done, in this partisan world, certainly today's with these knife edge presidential elections, it's hard for him to come in as representing this national voice. He can speak to the nation, but for members of Congress in their own partisan camps or in their electoral camps, it's just much less incentive, the much less threat by the president, at least thinking about it. But we can come back to the Trump, who seemed to have a lot of sway over his members, but not necessarily on policy. So it just, it complicates this sort of slim majorities that we've had presidents who win the presidency by winning the Electoral College but not the popular vote. It undercuts their capacity to be this influential voice, right? To get lawmakers to do what they otherwise wouldn't want to do. You know, keep in mind, just our system of elections, only a third of the Senate is up for time. Some of those senators are never on the ballot, even with the president of their own party because of the nature of whenever they come up for election. And so the president's agenda might not be their agenda. And if they have, if the senator has to face election in an off year when the president's not on the agenda, it's an opportunity to distance themselves. And maybe that was the framers intent, they couldn't quite see what we have become today, but a sort of dividing and checking and complicating the emergence of large majority, quote unquote, “tyrannical majorities”. That was their point. And to some degree, they've been able to succeed. Certainly on run of the mill issues. But again, crisis affords presence and opportunity to try to set the agenda and to direct the course of Congress, sometimes more successfully than others.

GR: So, adding this up, we've got crisis is a possible way to make this better and presidents coming in with large majority wins to give them the ability to help Congress function better. So that leads directly into my next question to you, which is that's kind of sounding like Franklin Roosevelt, perhaps. Is there any president in our relatively modern history that you think was the best at working with Congress and getting Congress to be more functional? Who would that be?

SB: Well, so I mean, there's always conditions under which these presidents emerge. And us dutiful political scientists always want to like think about the conditions that afford opportunities for leadership. So FDR, for sure. But he's operating in an entirely different context, first he’s operating, certainly a world war in which the US was engaged as opposed to the Ukraine-Russia war, where the U.S. is only kind of peripherally involved. World War, I think probably eventually heightened the stakes for the United States and for the Congress, but also was a different party system. He was coming in as you said, with very, very large majorities, some divisions in the opposition party. So he had the wherewithal to do something like propose an emergency banking law at 9 a.m. and have it enacted into law at 3 p.m. But that's so unusual, just so unusual. And, of course, on issues where the Congress is divided on civil rights and race, even FDR had had a harder time and knew not to challenge those relations.

GR: A lot of modern candidates running on both sides of the aisle will point to Ronald Reagan and say, oh, I want to you know, I want to do this like Ronald Reagan, maybe different policies, but that's going to be my style. Do you think he was particularly good in this regard?

SB: So what I always think of as why Reagan was so good is he believed, and he really believed in something or he was such a good actor that he made me believe that he believed in something and it was very crystal clear. And so, it's harder to, I don't really see presidents quite like that anymore. And so it had staying power and he was able to attract a different cohort of sort of activists into the Republican Party, the religious right in particular, like to ground the Republican Party in a new way and oriented against the Soviet Union and so forth. So for sure, I think a lasting impact. But even just sort of looking at what Trump has done and Trump supporters have done to the party suggests that even a figure like Reagan and his influences like been crumbled within the base of the Republican Party.

GR: If you’ve just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, and my guest is George Washington University Professor Sarah Binder. I want to return now to something you intimated at the beginning of our conversation, talking about how the current system kind of selects for candidates and who's more likely to want to pursue this. And you focused in on the Republican side of the aisle being perhaps more of a problem than the Democratic side. It is very hard to run for Congress these days. You've already ticked off a lot of problems, raising enormous sums of money for one. But it's a very grueling process, you know, if you're in a primary, it's two election cycles before you can win. And as we've already been talking about, you're constantly running for reelection if you do win. So, I mean, the most extreme example I can think of is, you know, most people that are first elected to Congress before they take the oath of office, they've held their first fundraiser, it's absolutely absurd that way. So, and then the campaigns are nasty, as you've pointed out. So how is the system going to select for the best people? I mean, who does it tend to select? What's the Darwinian process?

SB; So, to some extent it's important not to overgeneralize from particular examples on the Republican and Democratic side. Because the easy answer to that question is that on the Republican side, something like a Marjorie Taylor Greene or a Matt Getz, that it's selecting folks who are not seeking careers in Congress to solve problems, as we say they're seeking fame. They're seeking a Fox News show, they're seeking attention. Now they may portray their reasons for running differently but that's certainly what it looks like from folks who study the institution. So that when the House votes to boot particular House Republicans off their committee assignments, it doesn't matter. It frees up their time to go pursue their public persona. So, there's certainly on the Republican side particularly, some incentive if you're motivated and pushed and accrue the support of Trump to be that kind of a disrupter for whatever range of reasons. We don't quite see disrupters like that per se on the Democratic side. We certainly, and many folks want to draw a comparison, say Marjorie Taylor Greene on the Republican side and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, AOC on the Democratic side because of her public presence. But if you look at her public, what she's talking about in her clips and her Facebooks and all that is, it's about what I did in Congress this week. It's about a, you know, a burial benefit they brought home for COVID people who die of COVID. It's about working on the Green New Deal, right, it’s very policy focused. So I still think there's a distinction between the parties on who's more likely to be running for Congress. And so certainly the opportunities to win on either side are slim because there are so few competitive races. I would say the Democrats, as you know, they're attracting a broader range of folks. I do wonder about the future of the Republicans, particularly on the House side.

GR: We've only got about a minute and a half left. But I did want to ask you this question. Looking toward the midterms and put you into the role that a lot of political scientists don't like, which is making predictions. But I'm going to do it anyway. For a while it looked like the Democrats were going to take a real shellacking in this upcoming midterm, and then in the summer, Supreme Court has the decision overturning Roe versus Wade. Things start to look a little better for them. Now, I think it's somewhat unclear. What's your gut telling you as we head into this final lap of the election process? What do you think we're going to see after Election Day?

SB: Well, it's really hard to beat history, right? And the history is that the president's party loses seats. These are slim majorities. This is a very naturally unpopular president. Not popular, but not quite enthusiastic even among the Democratic base. So press approval is down. The economy, the inflation is at a 40 year generational high. And even popular presidents, there's a presidential penalty even when the president's popular. So this is a perfect storm for Democrats losing seats. And in this case, small majorities certainly probably losing the House. I do think still the House and Senate come down to a couple of races here and we may not know until December if there's a runoff in Georgia. So the bigger picture here, these are a slim majority, these are tenuous majorities regardless of which party is able to capture which or both chambers.

GR: Well, you've sort of got me thinking that the only way we're going to solve this is to have a big crisis and I don't know if that's the happiest note to end on, but we'll have to leave it there. That was George Washington University Professor Sarah Binder. Professor Binder, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me, this has been really, really insightful.

SB: Thank you so much for having me on.

GR: You've been listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the Public Interest.

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Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.