Is the 'broken branch' a viable path to the presidency?
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Notwithstanding famed neurosurgeon Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonTrump launches effort to boost support among black voters Zoning is not the answer to all our housing problems Freer housing is 'fairer housing' — HUD should tie funding to looser zoning MORE and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina's entry into the race for the White House, the majority of 2016 candidates have ties to one of the nation's least favorable institutions: the U.S. Congress. White House hopefuls Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump circuit court nominee in jeopardy amid GOP opposition Trump has officially appointed one in four circuit court judges On The Money: Retirement savings bill blocked in Senate after fight over amendments | Stopgap bill may set up December spending fight | Hardwood industry pleads for relief from Trump trade war MORE (R-Texas), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulFox News legal analyst says quid pro quo is 'clearly impeachable': Trump requested 'criminal' act Federal court rules baseless searches of travelers' devices unconstitutional Sunday shows — New impeachment phase dominates MORE (R-Ky.), Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump Paul's demand to out whistleblower rankles GOP colleagues MORE (R-Fla.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Overnight Health Care: Top health official defends contract payments to Trump allies | Vaping advocates confident Trump will turn from flavor ban | Sanders gets endorsement from nurses union Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment MORE (I-Vt.) are incumbent U.S. senators, with Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Krystal Ball credits Gabbard's upswing in 2020 race to 'feckless' Democratic establishment Outsider candidates outpoll insider candidates MORE (D) being less than eight years removed from serving in the upper chamber as well. To be sure, more White House aspirants will enter the fray — including current and former governors — but as the race is still in its infancy, the central narrative will no doubt be the candidates' fitness to lead, all the while attempting to shake the stench of failure and dysfunction from their respective stints in Congress.


A Gallup Poll showed Americans' job approval rating for Congress averaged 15 percent in 2014. Moreover, congressional approval ratings have been among the lowest Gallup has measured over the past four years. In fact, the actions of some declared candidates have played an integral role in this overall decline. Cruz's and Paul's filibuster efforts certainly raised their profiles and gained them enormous favor with their respective bases, but did very little in advancing a legislative agenda. The government shutdown of 2013 — the first since 1996 — was overwhelmingly attributed by the voters to congressional Republicans. And of course, who can forget Rubio's dalliances with comprehensive immigration reform and the spectacular failure that ensued?

Luckily, these snafus are not limited to Republicans. Clinton's ill-fated vote for the authorization of the use of force in Iraq in 2002 certainly played a role in her failure to capture the Democratic nomination in 2008. Considering the current state of affairs in the Middle East, that vote could continue to haunt her going forward. Given the continued failures of the institution as a whole, as well as the glaring missteps of these individual members of Congress, Americans might have reservations about sending someone to the executive branch from the "broken branch."

In fact, since the 106th Congress, the number of full-measure votes have fallen dramatically from 67 back in 2002 to only 25 in 2014. Given this abysmal rate of achievement for these current and former U.S. senators, the path to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will only get rockier.

Of course, Obama's short tenure (only two years) freed him from being weighed down by a tedious and cumbersome voting history, not to mention being painted as a creature of Washington. Perhaps Cruz, Paul and Rubio will attempt a similar strategy. Already parallels are being drawn between Rubio's candidacy and that of Obama's. More pointedly, while five of the seven declared candidates hail from the same "broken" Washington institution, all are branding themselves as outsiders with no mention of their roles as members of Congress.

In their best-selling book, The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann offer insight as to why:

Many viewed Washington as an insidious place and were fearful that the more time they spent there, the greater the likelihood they would catch the virus that caused Potomac Fever. The pride that members of both houses had in their institutions gave way to a skepticism ... members increasingly saw their service in Congress not as a great and joyful time of their lives but as an unpleasant duty, like taking castor oil or serving in the trenches in France in World War I — something to endure, not savor, for the greater good of achieving a policy revolution in the country.

Gone are the days of intense deliberation and high-minded policy debates. The once-great body that gave the nation the Civil Rights Act, the Glass-Steagall Act and the Social Security Act of 1935 is now reduced to shutdowns, obfuscation and intense partisanship. Will voters — on both sides of the aisle — believe that Congress has shaped these candidates to meet the challenges ahead? Does Rubio's failed attempt at immigration reform make him ready to lead? Is Paul's filibuster efforts over Obama's National Security Agency (NSA) nominee a prelude to a strong commander-in-chief? Has Cruz's support of the 2013 government shutdown led to a less-partisan culture in Washington? Did Clinton's 2003 vote for the Iraq war strengthen U.S. security posture?

Those are critical questions that service in the "broken branch" has been unable to answer. Unfortunately for the candidates, a race for the White House will.

Ham is a former U.S. Senate fellow. He is author of the best-selling book The GOP Civil War: Inside the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party.