For the moment, let's just forget about the disappointment of any substantive health care reform. Remember instead that we also have critical job creation, financial reform, and national energy, environmental, and educational issues stalled in a Congressional queue that gets longer by the month. Gone are the days of bi-partisanship or crossing party lines to get something done.
Last week, Obama was forced to invoke executive authority to create a commission to fight debt and joblessness because the hill could not even agree on forming a more powerful Congressional panel. It seems a party needs a super-majority of 60 senators to get anything done these days, and even that is no guarantee because 80% of congressional legislation was filibustered last year anyway. Congress is so gridlocked, so dysfunctional, that Senator Evan Bayh refuses to run for re-election because in "times of enormous challenge the people's business is not getting done."
Congress is not operating as it should.
Why? All the criticism of the pundits ignores the simple, obvious reason - selfishness. There is plenty of fault on both sides of the aisle but let's just take the more extreme case of the Republicans. They have become known as the "party of no," because they have found that in stymieing government legislation, they can use government failure to win elections. In other words, they win elections by making government (the other guys) look stupid. The problem is that when the president and congress fails, the country fails with them.
The "No" party uses all sorts of scripted arguments like No taxes, No abortion, and No regulation to make their case, but their lack of transparency is so obvious that they end up appearing as brain-dead ideologues. They are more interested in the selfish pursuit of power than in governing, and quite frankly, that is a dereliction of duty.
This is not what we are about as a nation and not what we want our elected officials to represent. Our heritage is based on the pursuit of freedom, individualism, and self interest, but since when do these words become a euphemism for selfishness? Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith would turn over in their graves. The conservative movement as a whole, it seems, has been co-opted by what John Kenneth Galbraith once called a continuous search for "a superior justification for selfishness." This was not the original intent.
Adam Smith, the pioneer of modern economics, for example, held that moral life begins with feeling or sentiment. Sympathy above all other elements balances the extremes of self-interest because "our" well-being depends in some measure on "theirs." In other words, it is in our own interest to take into account the interests of others. Otherwise, nothing ever gets done.
My field is leadership, and I know that highly effective people are driven - but their drive is directed to a greater purpose and to those who are serving that purpose. This just makes sense. Think of it, if you are on a team and everyone is playing as a team, the team performs better. If everyone plays for themselves, the team performs worse. So real leaders, Congressional or otherwise, balance personal ambition with dedication to a greater purpose. They are both selfish and selfless - driven to succeed while in service to something else.
But everyone seems to have forgotten that something else part. As Tom Friedman said in a recent New York Times editorial, we need our political elites (as well as business elites) to act more like adults-and honor the purposes for which they exist - in this case governing. What we really need is more purpose driven leaders.
There are many explanations for the quagmire we are in, but I will comment on just one that is dear to my heart. A century ago, our educational system was dedicated to developing character and responsible, ethical citizens. In today's jargon, the goal was to develop "people who do well by doing good." That old idea of a moral education however has been replaced with job preparation. The result is that we produce brilliant bankers and politicians but we have failed to make them wise. It's time to return education to its roots - for taking the moral high ground - but we are not going to solve that problem here.
So what can we do? The gridlock in congress is so acute that there seems to be little hope for change from within. Any attempt at reform would be subject to the same paralyzing behavior that now plagues it. Congressional leaders need to be held more accountable from the outside, and we can do this because the polarization we see in congress is not mirrored in the general American public as a whole. We as a people need to weigh in with our elected officials, media, and public forums to take back the control of our political process.
In my wildest dreams, I would like to see a "selfishness index" where every vote by a member of congress is weighed on a scale that balances selfish interests versus the interests of the general public. We could set up a watch-dog group like Senator William Proxmire's "Golden Fleece Award," which for years has drawn attention to some of the most outrageous examples of wasteful spending by the Federal government. Maybe we could make award winners all wear a "selfish barometer" on their sleeves. I know that is silly, but something as simple as an index may loosen things up enough to get congress moving again.
Hey, the Tea Party seems to be working in its way, why not this as another grass roots development?