Partisan divides and ideological battles are hardly new to Washington. But what is new is how the legislative process has essentially stopped, making Capitol Hill more dysfunctional than it's been in decades.
The latest examples of dysfunction are the responses -- or lack of responses -- to crises that had once seemed to unite Washington: the unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, and the veterans who have been unable to get timely care at Veterans Affairs hospitals around the country.
On the border crisis, President Barack Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency aid for humanitarian and border-enforcement funds. But House Speaker John Boehner has demanded that Obama ask his fellow Democrats to back a measure to reverse a 2008 law granting additional rights to Central American minors. Changing that 2008 law is something the White House has been on the record supporting.
“Frankly, it is difficult to see how we can make progress on this issue without strong, public support from the White House for much-needed reforms, including changes to the 2008 law,” Boehner said in a letter to Obama.
On the VA hospitals, both the Senate (by a 93-3 vote) and House (by 426 to 0) easily passed reform legislation. But they've been unable to come together in a conference committee to reconcile the two bills.
"The good faith we have shown has not been reciprocated by the other side," complained Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who caucuses with the Democrats.
It's that kind breakdown -- hammering out a compromise -- that epitomizes the current legislative dysfunction.
“These are shameful chapters," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told the Huffington Post. "Probably the most shameful would be if we fail to act on the VA. For us to let our veterans down, it is unacceptable is the mildest word I can think of."
McCain isn't alone. A new Pew Research Center poll finds that 55 percent of Americans believe this Congress has accomplished less than usual -- the highest percentage on this question dating back to 1994.
The poll also shows that only 28 percent have a favorable view of Congress; 69 percent have an unfavorable view.
"The good faith we have shown has not been reciprocated by the other side."
Republicans blame the dysfunction on President Obama. “The process has been hampered by the contradictory messages being sent by the White House about the president's willingness to solve the problem,” Boehner said about the humanitarian crisis at the border.
He added, “We see a similar situation with the scandal at the VA. Bipartisan, bicameral negotiations were making good progress until the White House began demanding more money with no accountability and no strings attached.”
Of course, Washington has been through plenty of low points before in the past 20 years, especially during times of divided government. The 1995-96 shutdown. Impeachment. The 2011 debt-ceiling standoff. The 2013 government shutdown.
And of course, these type of legislative dust-ups aren't uncommon the summer before an election year.
But what is different is the current resistance to give the political opposition anything that could resemble a win -- no matter how small, no matter how seemingly uncontroversial. In 1996, Bill Clinton was able to work with Newt Gingrich to achieve welfare reform. In 2001, Ted Kennedy worked with John Boehner to pass George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education reform.
Those bipartisan agreements -- even if they were the exceptions, even if they had their detractors -- helped remind voters that, yes, the system can work; that, yes, politicians can come together from time to time.
But those exceptions now seem like the most unrealistic of possibilities.
First published July 24 2014, 12:59 PM