BGR speaker decries excessive partisanship in Washington

The federal government is broken, fractured by narrow self-interest groups, political homogeneity in congressional districts and public servants who regard compromise as anathema, author and journalist Steven Roberts said Wednesday in New Orleans.

“The fact is that government in Washington is not working very well,” said Roberts, who has covered Washington politics for more than three decades. “In fact, it’s working very badly.”

“I say that much more in sadness than in anger,” he said.

Roberts, whose column appears in this newspaper, was in town to serve as guest speaker for the nonprofit Bureau of Governmental Research’s annual luncheon.

The political commentator is married to journalist Cokie Roberts, whose parents, Hale Boggs and Lindy Boggs, both represented the New Orleans area in the House of Representatives. “I’m not one of these jaded, cynical reporters who thinks all public servants are thieves or worse. I believe deeply in public service,” Roberts said.

But, he said, Congress has become dominated more by “partisan warriors than problem-solvers” and has become crippled.

He cited congressional redistricting, where district lines are drawn to produce concentrations of voters of one party, and a thinning of the ranks of conservative Southern Democrats and progressive Northern Republicans in a list of impediments to good government.

“This is a very serious problem, because if you are in a district where you have no fear of ever losing, you have no sense of accountability to your constituents,” Roberts said. “You don’t listen to dissent. You don’t listen to the other side. You only listen to the people who support you.”

Meanwhile, he said, Sen. Mary Landrieu is one of the handful of Democrats left in the Senate from a Southern state.

“Think of the tradition that Louisiana has had in the past. Think of the John Breauxes, think of the Bennett Johnstons. Think of the contributions lawmakers like that made to American politics. Why? Because they were dealmakers. They were moderates. They were pragmatists. They actually talked to people on the other side of the aisle,” Roberts said. “We’ve become much more homogeneous in our politics.”

That has left Washington politicians without the ability or the desire to make reasonable deals and compromises, he said. The media, whom he described as “unindicted co-conspirators,” then enforce the polarization, Roberts said.

The budget deal announced by House and Senate negotiators Tuesday night is “so modest” that it actually is a reflection of how broken Washington is, Roberts said. It doesn’t sufficiently address matters like needed entitlement cuts, he said.

“This is the most basic job of government — to pass a budget — and what they came out with is basically a failure to deal with all of the basic problems facing the federal government,” Roberts said. “This deal does nothing, nothing to deal with it.”

Congress’ 9 percent public approval rating demonstrates that Americans are not happy with their leaders’ performance, he said. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has a higher rating than the U.S. government,” he said.

The solution, Roberts said, is to elect more people to Congress who are concerned about the national interest, the country’s interest, and not personal or party interest.

Compromise, he said, can’t be seen as betrayal: “That way lies paralysis.”

BGR also announced three new board members on Wednesday. They are Laitram executive Natalie Simon, Stirling Properties CEO Martin Mayer and civic activist Caroline Zetzmann Calhoun.