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Former US Congressional Leaders Urge Reform


Much has been made over President Bush's low public approval ratings for most of the past year. But opinion polls indicate that the American public holds Congress in low regard as well.

A recent poll by the Associated Press found President Bush's public approval rating at 36 percent.

But only 27 percent of those surveyed approved of the way Congress is doing its job.

Norman Ornstein is a longtime observer of Congress at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"But flatly, in the 36 plus years that we have been here, we have never seen it this bad," said Ornstein. "The institution is broken at this point and needs enormous changes to bring it back to where it should be and needs to be if we are going to make our constitutional system work."

The polls suggest many Americans see Congress as inefficient, paralyzed by partisanship and consumed with political fundraising to ensure their incumbency.

Opposition Democrats hope to exploit the negative public view of the Republican-controlled Congress to make gains in the November midterm congressional election.

But Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway warns that the public cynicism about Congress extends to both parties.

"This feeling of anti-incumbency is not just anti-Republican anti-incumbency or anti-Bush, it is really anti-Washington," she noted. "It has to do with lobbyists, it has to do with fundraisers, it probably has to do with pollsters, I hate to say."

Among those urging changes in the way Congress conducts itself is former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"The failure to do effective, aggressive oversight disserves the country and disserves the president because it means you are cutting off a major feedback loop that says, it is not working," commented Gingrich.

Gingrich says the founders of the American republic saw Congress as the most important of the three branches of government, acting as a check on the president along with the judicial system.

Thomas Mann is a long time political scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. He says the current Congress has ceded too much power to the executive branch.

"The key is for each branch to push back when it feels as if the other is exceeding its constitutional authority, and we have had no pushback. And I think as a country, we have suffered as a consequence," he said.

Mann has co-authored a book with Norman Ornstein called, "The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track."

One reason for the public's disillusionment with Congress is the fierce partisanship that has characterized congressional debates for the past decade.

"There is such a partisan tone up here that everybody gets caught in it and it is very difficult for people to break out of it," said former Republican Congressman John Kasich, who was a recent guest on VOA's Press Conference USA program. "I don't think it is impossible to break out of it. I broke out of it when I was here. And look, the best part of politics is when you are fighting over ideas. The worst part of politics is when you are fighting over power, and we are too interested in fighting over power."

Some political centrists argue the time is right to present an alternative to voters. Hamilton Jordan served as chief of staff to former President Jimmy Carter.

Jordan is part of an effort to draft a bipartisan presidential ticket through the Internet for the 2008 presidential election.

"We are going after the large number of people in the middle who, like me, have kind of sat back and not particularly cared for the choices they have had in some of the recent national elections and that think they can do better," he said.

Democrats believe the 2006 congressional elections are their best chance to retake one or both chambers of Congress since Republicans took control in 1994.

Former Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley is urging his party not to try and exact political retribution should Democrats win in November.

"Democrats [should] clearly and intensely [promise] that if they take the majority back again, they will not go back and try to pay back, so to speak, what they felt were the excesses and even the outrages of this period," said Foley. "But will promise minority rights in reaching those majority decisions."

Former House speakers Foley and Newt Gingrich were once bitter political foes.

But during a recent forum in Washington, the two men found common ground in urging Congress to reform itself, de-emphasize fundraising and do a better job of acting as a check on the executive branch.

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