With Congress Playing a Different Game, Deals in Washington Are More Elusive

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WASHINGTON -- Like quarterbacks in football, presidents are central to most Washington stories. So discussion of budget gridlock often revolves around whether President Obama plays as effectively as his predecessors.

But institutional changes on Capitol Hill may be just as important as the president's skills to whether Washington can, or cannot, achieve the "grand bargain." If presidential leadership does not look the way it did in Lyndon B. Johnson's day, neither does Congress play the same game anymore. Those changes have grown more relevant now that Mr. Obama has stepped off the negotiating field to let lawmakers pursue a deal.

Once House and Senate leaders deferred to the seniority and expertise of committees to resolve disputes on big issues. Today's leaders, following battle plans of their warring Republican and Democratic armies, dictate the most important outcomes in what passes for "regular order."

"I don't know if people even know what that means anymore," said former Representative Vic Fazio, a California Democrat who once served in the House leadership. "We haven't been doing anything but a leadership-driven, top-down type of legislating."

That long-term shift in how Congress operates casts doubt on prospects for a breakthrough from the people who lead the House and Senate Budget Committees, Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, and Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington. The same goes for the chairmen of the tax-writing committees, Representative Dave Camp, Republican of Michigan, and Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana.

Even as influential legislators, they lack the institutional power to advance a potential "grand bargain" any further than Mr. Obama and the House speaker, John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio.

"It's not the fault of the chairmen," said Robert Packwood, a former Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, now retired from politics, who teamed with his House counterpart, Dan Rostenkowski of Illinois, to craft the last major tax reform during the 1980s. "It's the change in the system."

Part of the change, which gained steam under Democratic majorities in the 1970s and continued through the Republican Revolution of the 1990s, was demolition of the once-rigid seniority system. That system gave committee chairmen enormous control of their legislative turf, notwithstanding the wishes of their colleagues.

Now lawmakers rise within Congress according to their fealty to the Democratic and Republican teams. Knowledge and a talent for lawmaking are important, but so is an ability to raise campaign cash and advance the interests of political parties that have grown increasingly polarized -- in their ideologies, donor bases, constituency groups and election-year messages.

"The equation through which they've all become committee chairmen is more political now," said former Representative Vin Weber, a Minnesota Republican who worked with Newt Gingrich to dislodge Democrats from control of the House during the 1980s. "There is less incentive to be an active legislative leader than there was before."

One measure of that shift is how notable it seems for the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate merely to pass a "continuing resolution" averting a government shutdown at the end of this month. Congressional budgeting has eroded in tandem with the deepening partisan divide.

The last fiscal year for which the House and Senate agreed on a budget resolution and passed all normal spending bills on time was 1997. The period since has reached across three presidencies of both parties, unified Democratic and Republican control of Congress, and all combinations of divided government.

Mr. Baucus could negotiate only the sort of reductions to entitlement spending that Republicans require with a green light from the White House and Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader. Otherwise he would risk colliding with his party's commitment to protect Social Security and Medicare, and sullying its campaign themes.

Mr. Camp could settle only on a tax code overhaul that raises the additional revenue Democrats require with approval from Mr. Boehner and his Republican colleagues. Otherwise he would run into his party's anti-tax principles and message.

"There's no way that a committee chairman of Ways and Means is going to be able to say to the conference, 'I've got this great tax reform plan and it's going to raise $600 billion,' " said Jim McCrery, a former Republican representative from Louisiana who served on the tax-writing panel.

Their Congressional predecessors from an earlier era had more latitude. The two parties "didn't have fundamental principles back then," said Norman Ornstein, co-author of "The Broken Branch," a book on Congressional dysfunction.

Thus in 1964, Representative Howard Smith, a conservative Virginia Democrat, used his power as chairman of the House Rules Committee to keep civil rights legislation from reaching the House floor. Never mind that a speaker and president of his own party favored the bill. Pro-segregation conservatives remained an important, entrenched faction of the Democratic Party.

The legendarily persuasive President Johnson eventually triumphed by enlisting help from moderate House and Senate Republicans. A pivotal moment, related in the most recent volume of Robert A. Caro's biography of Mr. Johnson, came when the president promised the House Republican leader $750,000 for a university in his district.

Such cross-party cooperation on high-profile controversies has nearly vanished. So has the fiscal bait that Mr. Johnson used to secure it, as "earmarks" have become discredited.

"We've taken some tools away from people," Mr. Weber said.

Mr. Boehner has embraced the idea of giving some tools back to legislators, returning the House a few steps closer to how it used to operate, loosening the reins that Mr. Gingrich once held so tightly.

In theory, that would give Mr. Camp some freedom to tackle tax issues that Mr. Boehner has been unable to resolve with Mr. Obama. Along with Representative Sander M. Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, Mr. Camp has created 11 bipartisan "Tax Reform Working Groups" to examine different parts of the Internal Revenue Service code.

Their freedom to complete the job remains in doubt.

"They have something in the oven," Mr. Fazio said. "Back to regular order, letting committees operate is what Boehner says he wants to do. Well, here's his opportunity."

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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