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Congress and the history of disfunction


Four days into the 118th Congress, House Republicans still haven't elected a speaker, and no governing, none at all can happen until they do. You've likely heard lots this week about how unprecedented this all is, or at least that it hasn't happened in about a century. But is this a new level of dysfunction for Congress? That's one of the questions we're going to put to John Farrell. He's an author and historian who's covered Congress as a journalist but also written biographies of former House Speaker Tip O'Neill and Senator Ted Kennedy. John, thanks for joining me.

JOHN FARRELL: My pleasure.

SUMMERS: So before I start to pick your brain about the institution's past, I just want to start here and talk about Congress at the present. Can you just give me your reaction as you've been watching the stalemate continue this week as hardline conservative members are working to sink or derail or contort Republican Kevin McCarthy's chance at the speakership?

FARRELL: Well, I think it's a great argument to allow C-SPAN to roam the chambers of Congress with their cameras. We've seen little head-to-head conferences. We've seen Congress in all its glory because the rules are suspended. And we don't have this very strict rule that C-SPAN has to operate on focusing on the rostrum. Aside from that, I think it's part of a continuing deterioration of order on Capitol Hill that really dates back to the Berlin Wall coming down and the end of the Cold War. Once we were freed of that common enemy, there was no reason anymore to stop fighting amongst ourselves.

SUMMERS: So are we overstating it then? I mean, I've said it on this program, guests who we've had on have said it, if I look up at cable news screens, they've said it. There's all this talk about how unusual this is, but it sounds to me like you're saying we've been here before.

FARRELL: Well, Thomas Jefferson got elected after 36 ballots in the House of Representatives. So, yeah, we've been here before. But there are are huge periods of stability and quiet in between so that we tend to forget the extreme moments. But in 1876, you had a Senate filibuster of a presidential election. And in the - right before the Civil War, you had several speakership battles that went into dozens of votes before somebody was chosen.

SUMMERS: So I used to cover Congress. So I know that one of the biggest debates around the institution is, did things used to be better? Have they always been this bad? So I want to ask you, did things used to be better? Have they reached a new low?

FARRELL: It may be a new low, but things were never golden, really. You know, you had Richard Nixon coming to power as a young congressman by joining the red hunters in the McCarthy era. You had Newt Gingrich in the 1990s convincing the Republicans that they needed to be nastier. You had - even one of our more staid regular members now, Jim Jordan, started as a member of the Freedom Caucus, the bomb thrower. So over time, these guys get invested and they see that there's a path in the institution and they become institutionalists. But there's always room for somebody to make their name by being the louder, more explosive member of the group.

SUMMERS: So to your mind, then, is that how the body actually manages to function, that you have some people like Jim Jordan in the example that you gave who just seemed to stick around long enough that they began to either better understand or better respect or better navigate how the place works to actually get things done?

FARRELL: No, I don't think you should ever underestimate individual careerism, so that when you are a young member in Congress, like Nixon was, for example, after World War II, you're a minority member. You are destined to 20 years of total obscurity. And all of a sudden, somebody comes to you and says, you play the red card and you can become a national leader. And within six years, he was vice president of the United States. So you always have that temptation for somebody to use a moment.

The different wrinkle this time around is that the social media and the cable news atmosphere seems to be providing almost a reward in itself. You go on the cable TV shows, you write on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook. And, you know, if you're a bar owner in Rifle, Colo., and all of a sudden now you're a national media person duking it out with Sean Hannity on Fox News and getting on your Twitter feed and seeing that you've got tens of thousands of people following what you say. It's a pretty heady experience. And you don't really care if there's an ideological payback down the line.

SUMMERS: We've been talking about a battle over who leads the House. We've come off of four years of Nancy Pelosi getting a lot done with the same narrow majority the Republicans have now. As I mentioned, you've covered Congress. You've written about one of the longest serving and most successful speakers, Tip O'Neill. What makes leaders like a Nancy Pelosi or Tip O'Neill, what makes them effective?

FARRELL: Well, it's top down, but it's also bottom up. Right now, you have - and during Pelosi's time, you had a relatively unified Democratic Party, as opposed to, say, the Democratic Party of 1968 or 1970 that was falling apart in much the way that the Republican Party is fracturing now. And Pelosi was blessed with good team leaders. And she was an extremely talented woman. She looks better as a speaker every day. But we also should not ignore somebody like John Boehner or Paul Ryan, who even though it looked like they were presiding over chaos because these same Freedom Caucus characters were challenging them and preventing them from bringing bills to the floor or fighting them in the caucus, in the end, the grown-ups won. The stuff of government got done. The budget bills passed. Medicare survived. And life went on.

I went back and looked up some statistics from the last year of Obama's first term, and repeatedly Boehner and Pelosi got together, and each of them contributed anywhere from 80 to 140 votes. And together, they kept government running while the crazies did their thing. That may be a glimpse of the future. And it's going to be a great irony or a great political lesson if what is happening this week, the end result is to invite Hakeem Jeffries into the room, up to the table rather than a unified Republican Party barring the doors of leadership and responsibility and keeping the Democrats on the outside.

SUMMERS: So before I let you go, I'd just like to ask you whether Republican Kevin McCarthy ultimately wins the gavel or someone else becomes speaker. What did the events of the last week, these days, these repeated votes, what do they tell us about the future of this institution?

FARRELL: I don't think they tell us a lot. I think that they tell us that in the short term, you can expect more chaos. But we just came away from a presidency in which the president was impeached twice. That's an extraordinarily rare occurrence, and yet we've gotten through that and we seem to be progressing down the road. So it's a spectacle. Politics was always meant to be a spectacle. And politics in this country, thanks to the wisdom of the founders, was always meant to be a mud wrestling game without anybody walking away with a clear pre-eminence of power. It's all supposed to be a balance. A balance means that there's going to be lots of stalemates, and there's going to be times of chaos.

SUMMERS: We've been talking with author and historian John Farrell. His most recent book is "Ted Kennedy: A Life." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

FARRELL: Thank you, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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