Sen. George Mitchell On Congress and Bureaucracy
Question: Why is it so hard to get things done?
George Mitchell: Well, I don’t think it’s any more difficult than it ever was to get things done. I think that’s part of the deliberate design of the forty-five men who wrote the Constitution. Remember, their central objective was independence from Britain, self-governance and the prevention of any established or King-like authority in the United States. They had lived under a British King-- they did not ever want there to be an American King. If you look back over history, they have been brilliantly successful. We’ve had forty-three Presidents, and no Kings in American life. And they wanted to disburse authority. They were very suspicious of the accumulation of authority in any one person. We know all the phrases: power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. I think that first came from an Englishman, but nonetheless, it was widely believed by the men who wrote the Constitution. And so they devised a complex system to disburse power, to make it hard to get things done. In fact, I believe that the Senate is a microcosm of all of the American political process, because in the Senate, it is very hard to get anything done. It’s much easier to block things and I think it’s an exaggeration but captures the spirit of what the founders wanted to do by saying that in order to prevent bad things from happening, they made it difficult for anything to happen. And so getting a bill passed in Congress is not an easy job, particularly if it’s controversial, covers a subject that affects large numbers of Americans, and probably rightly so. I was a Senate Majority Leader for six years and I was enormously frustrated on many occasions by the rules and procedures of the Senate and by the difficulty of getting things done, but with the perspective that comes with time and not being directly involved in the job, the way I look at it is that if you go back over American history in the most important tasks, maintaining sovereignty in the people, the preservation of individual liberty, equal justice applied equally to every citizen, opportunity for every citizen- we’ve done pretty well. Now, there have been ups and downs, there have been mistakes, there have been steps backward, steps forward, steps to the side, but on balance, I think you could argue that Americans are freer than they’ve ever been, more prosperous than they’ve ever been, better educated than they’ve ever been, healthier than they’ve ever been. There are some very early warning signals, very dangerous, particularly with respect to health and education, that now appear, but on whole, I think the system has worked, although it’s very frustrating and for those who like to get things done, it’s particularly difficult.
Question: Getting over Congressional hurdles
George Mitchell: Well, there’s no secret. It’s not something that’s outside of normal life experience. If you want to get support for anything, you seek to persuade. You obviously try to begin with a good idea. Before I went in the Senate, I was a trial lawyer. I tried many cases, and I had a very good rate of success and people would say, “What’s the secret?” I’d say, “Well, begin with a good case.” That’s the best way to have success if you have merit on your side. Not always, but more often than not, you’ll prevail, and I think the same thing is true in the Congress. I don’t remember who said it. I heard Lyndon Johnson say it in a speech once and I don’t know who he was quoting, but he said something like the following, I can’t remember the exact words. He said, “It’s not hard to do what’s right- the really hard thing is to know what’s right.” And when you’re in the Congress, this is a very big country, there are widely diverse points of view, there are 535 members of Congress, each of whom thinks that he or she is doing what’s right by the country, by one’s constituents, so forth and so on, so it reflects the country. And it requires, I think, first, beginning with doing something good and right, certainly as you believe it, and persuading others that it is good and right for their constituents and for the country, and then working hard at it. I did a lot. I passed a lot of bills, and I can tell you, it’s very hard work.