Would-Be Reformers Would Do Well to Study Jerry Ford

There are many subjects to write about as the new Congress prepares to convene. But I have to start with reflections on former President Gerald Ford. It was my great good fortune to get to know Ford well over the past 20-plus years, mostly through his association with the American Enterprise Institute. Every year, he hosted the AEI World Forum, several days of intensive discussions about world affairs in Beaver Creek, Colo., with other world leaders in government, politics, business and academia.

Resident Scholar Norman J. Ornstein
Resident Scholar Norman J. Ornstein
I was fortunate to get to go most years, and able to spend time with him. He liked me, I think, because he knew I was a Congress guy who loved the House as he did. So we talked about Congresses past and present and about what was going on in the world.

He was a genuinely nice guy--as warm to my young kids as he was to prime ministers. He was very comfortable with his time as president and clearly had not shrunk in any way from exercising executive power, but he was still at heart a legislator and still remembered with enormous fondness his time in Congress. His 25 years in the House, from January 1949 until he moved to the vice presidency in December 1973, was a time when friendships across the aisle were commonplace and legislative craftsmen were prized. Like most of his colleagues, Ford established his family here in the Washington, D.C., area; traveling back to Grand Rapids, Mich., every weekend before the explosion of jet travel in the country was not practical. So Members of Congress and their families actually spent months at a time here and fraternized. And the time spent here could be devoted to serious legislative work. Of course, Congress was no nirvana then--there was plenty of ideological conflict and partisan tension. Ford could be a plenty tough partisan infighter himself and was not mushy ideologically--he was a staunch conservative in the context of his time in the House.

But by every objective standard, the House was a good place then, warts and all. And Ford represented the best of the place, a model lawmaker respected and liked by all. He would have had a special place in history even if he had not ascended to the presidency and done so much to restore dignity to the White House. In the White House, his initial call for “communication, conciliation, compromise and cooperation” was met with universal applause--but the fact is that he fought tooth and nail with the Democratic Congress and issued a stunning 66 vetoes in his two and a half years as president. The vetoes, though, were not a sign that Ford was a divider, not a uniter. He protected presidential prerogatives and took on his partisan and ideological adversaries with verve, but he retained strong personal relations and mutual respect with everybody in Congress.

Ford was a marvel--well into his 80s, even at 90 and 91, he kept up with everything in the U.S. and abroad and could talk about events and trends with genuine insight and penetrating common sense. The stereotype of him as the guy who couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time was simply false.

Remarkably, he seemed to get better at it each year until he began to slow a couple of years back. His mental prowess was matched by his physical strength--I grabbed his biceps once as I shook hands with him, and it was like steel; this was at 86 or 87! What a man.

As the 110th Congress convenes, fresh from honoring Ford in the Rotunda and at the National Cathedral, its leaders should reflect on what he brought to the House, and what lessons they can learn to keep the inevitable partisan tensions from again spilling over into tribal warfare and the rhetoric from yet again turning poisonous. The initial signs are good: We have rules changes in the offing that will begin to restore a sense of integrity to Congress and sincere pledges from the new leaders in the majority to open up the process, restoring some semblance of the regular order, a return to deliberation, a new openness and honesty in conference committees and some real oversight for a change.

The most encouraging sign is the promise in both chambers to have real, five-day weeks, or at least four full days a week, as the core of the legislative process. The norm of the 109th Congress was the day-and-a-half week when Congress was in session, starting with a pro forma session Tuesday night at 6:30 and ending Thursday just after noon. That kind of session made a deliberative process impossible, and gave the leaders the running room they wanted to manipulate the process. Lengthy hearings were not feasible; neither was real debate.

With full weeks, Members will spend extended time in Washington. They may get to know their colleagues, of all things--which will make demonization of them more difficult. Time in Washington means time to do hearings, oversight, even actual debate on the floor, with real amendments. In the Senate, time in Washington means that leaders can call the bluff of Senators who issue holds on nominations or bills--essentially threats to filibuster--and force them either to actually take to the floor for hours and hours or days and days or back off.

Keeping to a real and full schedule in session will not be easy. Most veteran lawmakers have gotten used to the abbreviated weeks in Washington; many have built their family lives around it. And newer recruits to Congress who are not rich have another problem: It is just too expensive to move a family here and also maintain a residence back in the district. I wish we could find a way to establish a real housing allowance, through a generous tax credit, for lawmakers who face this dilemma. But for Congress to work, they will have to adjust themselves to the realities of what the job should be--which is spending at least 25 full weeks in the nation’s capital doing the nation’s business.

Without serious time in Washington, there is no serious legislative process. With it there is a serious chance to recapture some of the things that made Congress a place most of its Members, most of those who followed it closely, and a sizable share of the public respected.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI.

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