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Systemic Failure

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While politics appear to be as divisive in nature as ever, Americans have managed to reach a consensus around one concept: government is broken. Citizens now view their federal government as nothing more than an ineffective institution, incapable of solving the nation's more serious problems. This sentiment is found on all ends of the political spectrum. In listening to MSNBC's Rachel Maddow or to Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, one notices the slants change, but the tone is similar. In a recent Gallup survey on Americans favorability towards different industries and institutions, respondents reported the most disapproval with the federal government. Despite being foreclosed upon by the banking industry and gouged upon by the pharmaceutical industry, Americans still reported more trust in the former and the latter than with Uncle Sam.

The majority of blame for this dearth of faith in American governance has been directed at our esteemed elected officials. To be quite honest, they probably deserve the lion's share of the fault. Instead of a political discourse that focuses on the big picture and reasonable compromise, our politicians focus on the next election cycle and wedge issues. Even after an historically unproductive session of Congress and with serious economic turmoil afoot, the President and the Congress still felt it appropriate to go on a month long recess.

However, it is the institutions of the federal government that have allowed and facilitated these partisan players to halt the people's work. Without seriously reforming Washington's decision-making process, the American people will continue to be held captive to party politics. The 21st century has and will continue to present ever-changing problems in a myriad of policy areas. The nation's capitol needs to be able to react in real time to meet these challenges. Anyone paying the slightest attention to Washington this summer knows that our government is incapable of this type of effective action. Changing a few rules could pay big dividends.

A start would be amending the use of the filibuster. The concept of the filibuster is not mentioned at all in the Constitution, and the Founders would think it abhorrent to need 60 or more votes in the Senate to pass any legislation. Over the course of the past decade, both parties have been guilty of using this mechanism to block any and all undesirable legislation and executive appointees. The problem has become especially acute in recent years. In the last session of Congress, the body evoked more filibusters than were used in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and first half of the 1970s combined. Around a dozen filibusters were used in total during the 19th century, the current Senate could equal that amount in just one month.

It is hard to imagine any serious progress being made in the future on important matters of economy, budget, immigration, energy, and healthcare in the Senate with the ever-rampant use of the filibuster. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) has put forward a strong proposal that moves the government in the right direction. Under his proposed legislation, the amount of votes needed to end cloture (and prevent a filibuster) gradually declines over a short period of time. While 60 votes would originally be needed to end Senate debate on proposed legislation, by the end of a week only a majority would be needed to move forward and pass a bill. One can only assume that if adopted the American people would witness a few less speeches, and a couple more bills.

The other systemic problem plaguing the body of Congress is a constant and never-ending political campaign season. Historically, there was a time for campaigning and a time for governing. After a heated election season, the Congress was expected to commence and move forward with an agenda. We have now entered into a period where the election season is permanent and the governing season only emerges in the face of a dire crisis. With both parties constantly operating in this campaign mode, breaking this political cycle has become seemingly impossible.

The most recent example of this intrinsic election mentality on both sides of the aisle is found with our debt ceiling debate. Instead of either Republicans or Democrats examining the effects of a perceived default or credit downgrade on the country, both parties fixated on how the situation affected their poll numbers in the coming 2012 election. Constantly looking over their shoulders, our elected officials were more focused on the language in their campaign fundraising literature than of that in a debt compromise. While the American people might have lost this summer with no comprehensive plan to deal with a growing deficit, the parties in Washington experienced their own surplus with this crisis. In the month of June, the Senate Democrats' campaign committee raised $4.8 million and their Senate Republican counterparts raised $3.7 million. The House Democrats' campaign committee raked $6.2 million in June, while the House Republicans pulled in an impressive $6.7 million. A democracy cannot function properly if the focus of its officials is on campaign coffers and not on the pressing issues of the day.

A form of pact, compromise, or détente needs to be reached between both parties to reduce the influence of electoral politics. A solid first step would be a bipartisan initiative to halt national campaign fundraising prior to six months before an election for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Republican Congressional Committee. Such an agreement in "arms reductions" would hopefully allow the leadership in both parties more time to build the country up instead of push each other down.

The idea of serious procedural reforms is not glamorous and may seem miniscule in light of the great problems challenging our nation. However, one would be surprised at how many solutions could be generated to different issues under a more effective system of government.