Congress is back in session this week following their President’s Day recess, and Speaker of the House John Boehner and President Barack Obama are due to meet at the White House to discuss a variety of issues. The President has made it clear that immigration reform is his top priority, and House Republicans have signaled that they would like to address the issue as well: Last year, the Speaker hired Rebecca Tallent, a top immigration expert, and the House leadership released their principles for reform. The President would also like to pass a hike in the minimum wage. Both issues will likely be on the agenda.
When Congressman John Dingell retires at the end of this Congress, he will take with him all his experience and insight into how the institution operated when the committees, not party leaders, dominated the legislative agenda. For the past few decades, party leaders have concentrated power in their own hands, wresting it away from formerly independent committee chairmen. Congressman Dingell, however, is one of the few remaining Members to have served with these major chairmen. In fact, he himself began to serve as Chairman of the Energy and Commerce in 1981. Although party leaders had already started to grow in power, Chairman Dingell still wielded significant authority, expanding the panel’s jurisdiction and blocking initiatives he opposed. Many have remarked on the sheer number of important pieces of legislation he influenced; no doubt that came about at least in part because of a strong committee system.
One of the reasons Representative Dingell is stepping down is the incivility that is plaguing the Congress. Have fun solving that problem! Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza ticks off a few reasons why things are so bad these days: primary elections, political polarization, the cost of campaigns, air travel, and partisanship. Although Congress has been historically “unproductive”, based on the data Cillizza has assembled, it looks like Congress has earned a few other superlatives over the past few years. For instance, the cost of a campaign is the highest it has been—the average incumbent spent $3 million in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But society as a whole is not much better. The Gallup organization has measured Presidential approval rating for decades now, and tracks the polarization level, which is the differential between the Republican and Democratic support for the President. Each year of the past decade has been among the 12 most polarized years on record. High levels of polarization probably make it hard for a Member of Congress to work with a President of the opposing party.
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