It was not long ago that Congress had the capacity to metabolize political conflict. Within weeks of being impeached in 1998, President Bill Clinton was signing legislation that had been developed and considered alongside his trial. Why was that possible then, but so unlikely today? Because in the past, members of Congress knew one another and Congress had more tools to build consensus on hard issues.
A series of reforms designed to make government work better have had the opposite effect. C-SPAN and newer digital technologies have revealed much about our policymaking process while reducing the space for honest interaction and negotiation. And the elimination of earmarks has sanitized the legislative process to a virtual standstill.
We sometimes forget that resolving policy conflicts is not that different from challenges we all face when trying to come to agreement. Imagine discussing with your spouse whose in-laws to visit over the holidays. Now imagine that same discussion with your in-laws watching you on a live broadcast. There are moments in life and legislating where the imperative for deliberation trumps the imperative for transparency, and Congress should occasionally turn the cameras off. The incentive to perform for the TV audience is most unfortunate in congressional committees where canned questions and grandstanding have replaced learning and discussion.
Congress dealt itself a vicious blow in 2011 by eliminating earmarks, the ability to direct funds to a specific project — usually in the member’s district. For some, the goal was eliminating “pork.” Others argued against trading votes and transactional politics. But contrary to common assumption, earmarks don’t increase spending. In fact, they reclaim control of some discretionary spending (about 1 percent) from the executive branch. In the preceding years the practice had been improved by requiring all projects to be posted on a public website with a written justification. But eliminating earmarks altogether has diminished Congress’ ability to solve hard problems. The give and take that is often necessary to overcome entrenched differences is impossible if there is nothing to give or take.
The derision of earmarks is also at odds with a fundamental aspect of our constitutional design. Our representatives must simultaneously govern in the national interest while appealing to local constituents. Having eliminated the opportunities to build goodwill by doing something popular back home, we should not be surprised by a diminished willingness to take tough votes and expend political capital for the good of the nation.
Restoring any of these “transactional” or “relationship-building” measures would be unpopular. While lamenting gridlock, most would rather punish scoundrels than empower legislators. But there is one reason to believe that Congress will start to move in this direction: Desperation.
While there are many reasons for voter anger, Washington’s inability to do almost anything is high on the list. The majority of our elected leaders want and need accomplishments. The best hope for those who want to govern is to stand up for our democracy, stop denigrating the institution that they fought dearly to join and demand the tools they need to solve problems.