Let us stipulate that it is not easy to run the House of Representatives. With its 435 massive egos, each subject to unique pressures and whims, each accustomed to being the biggest fish in his or her own district pond, the House is bound to be unruly. The culture of the place is also not always conducive to following a leader. It hasn’t changed all that much from the scene Alexis de Tocqueville encountered when he visited the Capitol in the early 1830’s:
When you enter the House of Representatives in Washington, you feel yourself struck by the vulgar aspect of this great assembly. Often the eye seeks in vain for a celebrated man within it. Almost all its members are obscure persons, whose name furnishes no image to one’s thought. They are, for the most part, village attorneys, or those in trade. . . . In a country where instruction is almost universally widespread, it is said that the people’s representatives do not always know how to write correctly.
A tough crowd to corral, surely. But looking at Nancy Pelosi’s record of accomplishment after nearly a year, the question arises: can it really be this hard to run things?
For the first time in two decades, the Congress has failed to send the President even one budget bill before the end of October. The Democrats have failed, too, to make much of a dent in the war effort—after having promised their party’s most ardent constituents to reverse course. They have so far failed to capitalize on the opening offered them by the fight over the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and they’re plotting an effort to combine the Veterans and Defense appropriations bills with a bloated Health, Education, and Labor bill—which would allow Republicans to paint them as holding American troops hostage to the pet projects of Democratic interest groups.
Almost as important, though, has been the basic failure of day-to-day management by Speaker Pelosi. Again and again, she has allowed her most vulnerable members to be trapped by Republican floor tactics. Again and again she has been too aggressive with the most moderate Republicans, costing her party a chance to win crucial cross-over votes at key moments. Again and again she’s spoken too quickly and had to backtrack embarrassingly (this week, for instance, her staff was caught trying to edit a transcript of a public event to make it appear that she didn’t mean what she clearly said.)
The public has noticed, of course. Congress’s approval ratings are significantly lower than even President Bush’s. Pelosi’s standings in her home state have fallen sharply (as have those of the Senate’s Democratic leader Harry Reid).
Before the 2006 elections, some conservatives argued that a loss in Congress would have a silver lining for Republicans, by giving the GOP a chance to regroup and refocus, and especially by showing voters what the Democrats were like in power. Almost a year into the 110th Congress, it is hard to argue with them.