I’m traveling in Nevada this week and nearly everyone I’ve spent time with has asked me to tell them “what the hell is going on in DC these days.” Traveling outside the beltway on a regular basis not only helps to keep me sane, it reminds me that for most Americans, news from the nation’s capital is both confusing and frustrating. Indeed, in the current political culture of never-ending campaigns – the rhetoric never seems to give way to actually getting things done. So when I attempt to explain the chaos and gridlock in DC to my colleagues, friends and family, I usually begin with a little bit of civics 101.
If you were paying attention in high school government class you might remember the teacher explaining how there are three branches of government and one of them, Congress, is made up of two houses. The idea behind this mechanism is the need for a checks-and-balances system, so that no one branch or house of Congress could impose decisions without the approval of the other. This system remains a testament to the genius of the founders of the Republic.
But recent events suggest that the system is no longer functioning the way it was intended to.
The presidency has become increasingly powerful, with Congress continuing to take a back seat. In large part, this is a result of gridlock in Congress. And within Congress itself, the Senate has become the dominant house. With its 60-vote margin necessary for passage of any bill, the Senate now dictates the outcome of most every major policy debate. The House is not able to negotiate with the Senate where the leadership is unable to guarantee passage without considerable parliamentary hurdles. As a result, the House most often simply takes the Senate position. Witness healthcare reform. And now the same scenario is likely to play out with financial reform as well.
This all sounds pretty arcane, but the practical result of this situation is a Congress that is unable to make sweeping policy changes or react to public will in all but the most dramatic circumstances. While the voting public continues to look for change and real progress on issues like spending, immigration and healthcare, Congress is unable to untangle itself to address the issues. And only when the President uses the bully pulpit to insist on action does anything occur.
Congress has ceased to be a source of policy innovation, or action on the most pressing issues. Meanwhile the presidency becomes increasingly the center of action for the federal government, far beyond the role the founders envisioned when they created the office.
Despite the outcry by the Tea Party and the liberal left for their respective change agendas, the outlook remains grim for any real change. And even if you don’t happen to agree with either of those extreme agendas, the more moderate solutions remain balled up in the partisan ideological debates on which members of Congress continue to thrive. Demagoguery has become a very effective campaign tool.
So what’s the solution? It occurs to me that part of the problem is that we’ve tinkered too much with the system trying to perfect it. The reforms of the 1970s meant to end the threat of filibuster have actually resulted in filibuster being used on every issue. The desire to curtail the power of congressional committee chairs has resulted in a policy vacuum where no leadership exists in Congress in areas such as taxation, foreign affairs and budget policy. Maybe instead of trying to fix the problem with reforms, we should let the system work the way it was intended and see what happens. What do we have to lose?