Listening to most commentators, you’d think there is not much hope for the country’s political future. Congress is polarized. Extremes are the norm. The branches of government can’t work together. Dysfunction abounds. The presidential election is out of control, and there is gridlock when it comes to the next Supreme Court nominee. Doomsday is the only scenario for American politics.
But I beg to differ! The American political system is generally alive and well — and functioning as the architects of our Constitution intended.
George Washington would surely think so. When asked at a reception about the design of Congress, our first president compared it to the cup and saucer he was holding: The House, he said, is like the tea cup into which the popular passions of the moment are poured; the Senate, like the saucer where popular passions cool down.
As any student of history will know, passions, disputes and conflict are nothing new in politics. The wildly popular musical “Hamilton” surely makes that clear, reminding us that our times look almost pacific when compared to the days of “10 Duel Commandments,” when political disagreements resulted not only in insults, but actually put politicians’ lives at risk.
The fact is that members of the House reflect on and do their best to represent their constituents. They are an able and increasingly well-educated and diverse group of citizens.
So what’s holding up the process? It’s simple: We’re divided because the people are divided, and when there is a lack of consensus, it is reflected in the Congress.
Even when there has been unity in Washington, citizens’ disagreement can make it difficult to get things done. In the 1980s, for example, President Reagan, House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill (D-Mass.), Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and other members of Congress in both parties were determined to put our senior citizen safety net programs on a more sustainable financial footing. The logic was simple: Senior citizens as a group were better off than younger citizens, so increasing taxes on wealthier senior citizens to strengthen programs to help the less fortunate elderly made sense. The responsible way to do it was to increase taxes before increasing benefits, though both were included in the same legislative package. The legislation passed the House and Senate with large bipartisan majorities and was signed into law by President Reagan.
Members of Congress — myself included — proudly went back to our districts to explain the new law, only to discover that the elderly were rising up in protest. Across the country, elderly citizens objected, many of them quite strongly. The revolt was vividly symbolized by the picture of an old woman in Chicago clinging to the grill of Rostenkowski’s car as he attempted to drive away from a senior citizen gathering where he had been explaining the merits of the new act. Similar scenes occurred across the country. Congress returned to Washington and quickly repealed the legislation it had so proudly passed thanks to long bipartisan deliberations and compromise. It was back to the bargaining table, no compromise allowed. This was when politicians from both parties were in relative agreement. Imagine how much more difficult it is to pass legislation when both politicians and populace are at odds.
Self-government is hard, messy and often frustrating for everyone. But it is important to remember that the American system is based not on the support of the governed (Congress is currently viewed favorably by about 11 percent of voters), but rather on the sometimes grudging consent of the governed. There is a difference.
Good leadership can help, and both Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have moved to reverse the centralization of power in the hands of a few House and Senate leaders back to committee chairmen. This should increase their ability to reach consensus on issues within the jurisdiction of their committees.
It’s a step in the right direction, but it is no magic bullet. Where the country is divided, on issues such as on immigration, progress will not be as rapid as many would like. And for now the situation is made worse by a president who, despite being very able in some areas, has not been as effective as many of his recent predecessors in using his bully pulpit to develop common ground. This has increased frustration in the country, but that frustration, as intended by the drafters of our Constitution, is being channeled into this year’s presidential and congressional elections.
Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those others that have been tried.” In the United States, a presidential election is an occasion for us to take a good look at ourselves, at our fellow citizens and at our country. The picture is not always pretty, but it is illuminating. As we take stock of our hopes, fears, frustrations and aspirations, we can develop a better sense of what we can do through our national governmental institutions and what we cannot, and what we should not do in order to avoid creating more problems than we solve.
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