In general, I agree with Representative Cooper’s analysis of the problems facing the United States. Our real national debt, including unfunded liabilities, is much higher than $15 trillion. Cooper rightly suggests that the major entitlement programs cannot be sacrosanct if we are to address our pressing financial challenges and that the employer health-care deduction and the home-mortgage deduction, if rescinded, would raise a good deal of money. However, when he turns to the analyses of what went wrong and how to get Congress to work productively, I am less convinced.

Cooper argues that Congress refuses to use the right tools, focusing instead on crafting policy that sounds good rather than policy that works well. Explaining this failure, Cooper describes an earlier era when Congress worked better. In the 1980s, members were supposed to “vote their conscience and their district,” and Tip O’Neill’s House was intent on making policy. The staff of the Democratic Study Group (DSG) wrote authoritative papers on policy, read and trusted by both parties. Members worked in Washington, D.C. four to five days a week and got along across party lines. Thus, members knew and respected each other. They used “king of the hill” rules to allow choice over policies.

In Cooper’s telling, the arrival of the Republican Congress in 1994 changed things. Newt Gingrich centralized power, waged total war on President Clinton, and, rather than promote the House, sought Republican wins on every issue. In short, “compromise became a dirty word.” In addition, Gingrich ordered Republicans not to move their families to Washington, D.C., thus making the Tuesday–Thursday Club dominant and ensuring that members would not know each other. King-of-the-hill voting was ended, and the majority of the majority party were victorious—thus polarization. Finally, campaign expenditures increased dramatically, making members more dependent on special interests. Republican Speaker Hastert continued these practices, as could be expected.

When the Democrats returned, few could remember the O’Neill era. Thus, they did not follow its model. Apparently, this was also due in part to the fact that “FOX and MSNBC had certainly inflamed partisanship [and] social media had popularized non-fact-based reality.”

Given this reading of history, Cooper’s solution is threefold, and designed to keep members true to their constituents and purpose: first, pass H.R.419, the Redistricting Transparency Act of 2011, which would reduce gerrymandering; second, reverse through new legislation the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision; and third, institute differential pay for members of Congress based on an unspecified measure of performance.

Leaders need to build majorities supporting their views, not tinker with rules.

I shall pursue two arguments against these proposed solutions, one factual and one practical. First, Cooper’s description of the O’Neill House is somewhat idyllic. The beginning of polarization can be dated to the O’Neill era, and the king-of-the-hill voting procedures were structured so that the speaker’s bill was voted on last, making it policy. Likewise, the Tuesday–Thursday Club and campaign spending were on the rise well before 1994. There was no sudden shift. Nevertheless, the House is at present a Tuesday–Thursday Club, and members do spend more and more time campaigning and fundraising.

The real question, then: suppose we could go back to the O’Neill House, obviating the need to redo redistricting and/or pay members of Congress according to productivity. (It is clear that H.R.419 won’t pass, nor ever will merit pay.) Would there be a policy solution to the kinds of problems we now face? The answer is yes, but not because members knew each other and the DSG did good policy analysis, but because the Democrats had a large majority and the Republicans were a nearly permanent minority, controlling the presidency and the Congress at the same time for only two of the previous 64 years. The hypothetical O’Neill Congress would support tax increases over spending cuts, and, if it made cuts, would focus on defense rather than Social Security. That, however, is not the Congress we now have, nor would the American public elect such a Congress.

Today’s electorate, on the very issues raised by Representative Cooper, is of two minds: conservatives cite polls showing the majorities favoring cuts, and liberals cite polls showing that Americans do not want to cut entitlement programs. The American public wants both. It is the job of political leadership to build majorities for their policy preferences. Such leadership entails converting contradictory sentiments into winning campaigns and policy solutions. The abolitionist movement, on its own, could never have become a majority party; Lincoln and his fellow leaders over time forged free soil, free labor, free men, into a new majority with policy solutions.

Solving the problems so clearly set out by Representative Cooper will not be achieved by tinkering with House and Senate rules and norms. Rather, the solution is for leaders to build majorities for their views, which in this case entails constraining expenditures in a way that the public sees as essentially fair. Building that majority and electing it will generate the conditions necessary for real change.