The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why is Washington so dysfunctional?

Lawmakers in Congress are racing this week to avert a shutdown. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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We are a day away from the possibility of a third government shutdown in as many years. To which you are justified in asking: What is up with Washington? Why can’t lawmakers get their act together and do their most basic jobs, like funding the government?

I called up some people who think deeply on this topic: Washington Post senior congressional correspondent Paul Kane, former Republican congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania and former Democratic congresswoman Elizabeth Esty of Connecticut.

Their takeaways: Congress is struggling and there are lots of reasons — gerrymandering; liberals moving into cities while conservatives move rural; social media cheering on the polarization; and the demise of incentives for compromise, like earmarks. These very smart people are pessimistic that Congress can become an equal, functioning branch of government anytime soon.

Here are excerpts from our interviews, which have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

So, is Congress broken or near broken?

Dent: Well, Congress is certainly struggling and under tremendous pressure. I believe its Article I powers have been weakened, relative to the executive and the courts. So I think it’s a weaker branch of government than it once was.

Esty: It is very badly broken. I had hoped and continue to hope that the events of Jan. 6 would strike the fear of God into enough people to realize that if the legislative branch does not function, we rely way too heavily on the presidency, and that is a very dangerous place for a democracy to be in.

Kane: It’s been pretty damaged, from basically the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, and it has spun at various degrees of speed downward every since. There have been some big things they got done — the Affordable Care Act of 2010; Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms of 2010; the Budget Control Act of 2011, which put parameters on government spending, producing savings; and Republicans did a big tax cut in 2017. And last year, in the face of an absolute economic and health crisis from the coronavirus, Congress did come together and approve trillions in spending. But beyond that, we have reached a point where issues that have 70 percent, 80 percent, sometimes 90 percent of support from the public just can’t pass. They probably can’t even get a vote these days.

Why is it so bad?

(This question produced long, thoughtful answers from our interviewees. Kane has written about this extensively .Here are some highlights.)

Kane: By the time 2013 rolled around and you have divided government — a Democratic president in [Barack] Obama, Republicans controlling the House, Democrats controlling the Senate — you basically have a system of government where nobody has any skin in the game anymore. They used to let members do earmarks, these narrow projects you could get for your district without a lot of scrutiny. It led to some serious corruption for a few members of Congress. That was a bad, bad system. But there were ways to create a better, cleaner system that would get members to have some real skin in these bills, and that’s never been dealt with. For 10 years, they were without earmarks altogether, and Congress was on the brink of shutdowns all the time.

Esty: The rise of social media. It’s a technology that has crated enormous incentives to be intransigent, outraged and outrageous. Social media is wildly disruptive, and it has been no place more disruptive than in the political realm. You get likes, you get attention, you get on TV, you get money, you get power by not playing ball, by going straight to social media. You can be a brand new member of Congress — you can be Marjorie Taylor Greene, you can be Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — and everybody knows their names and they raise a ton of money and they get on TV and are talked about all the time. And people who play by the rules, do their work in committee, get amendments done here and there, they get none of that. The first Democratic bill signed by Donald Trump was mine. So I was good at getting the legislation done, but it doesn’t get covered at all by the media. People don’t believe it’s happening anyway, and the narrative that it’s a train wreck in Congress is a pretty easy story to tell.

Dent: I think in America today, many politicians view their political safety [as reliant on] tacking hard to their bases. Fewer members of Congress tack to the center, because they don’t see a reward for compromise and consensus. I certainly learned this during my service. After the tea party wave of 2010, it became difficult just to perform the most basic operations and fund the government. I found I was in the minority often within my own party voting for these things. I remember when Obama was president, and we were the majority in the House, and I was one of 29 members to vote [to raise] the debt ceiling. Republican leadership was begging us to vote for it, and I said I’d be happy to do it, but let’s get me more company, to make it a little less painful for us. Now leadership is saying don’t vote for the debt ceiling. When [Donald] Trump was president, many Republicans voted against the debt ceiling. Now he’s not president, leadership are whipping against it. These are the kinds of things that create a certain amount of cynicism.

Are you optimistic Congress can find a way to work again?

Kane: I’m not optimistic. I think you’re watching, especially on the Republican side, an entire generation of lawmakers who were once really good wheelers and dealers who tend to be replaced when they retire by fire-breathers. The Democrats have a lot of their own internal struggles, but one of the most debilitating things is you have a party, especially House Republicans, that is basically devolving into a non-policy, non-idea [group]. There is no real ideology among House Republicans these days. They aren’t really conservative anymore; they are just angry.

Dent: At some point, you can’t be for a guy who was an insurrectionist, or in support of an insurrection. And the fact that we are now tied up in knots over it as a party speaks to the bad position that we’re in.

Esty: I am seriously distressed, distressed seeing what’s happening in democracies in other parts of the world. I think we are in a real challenge to liberal democracies and liberal values of respect and tolerance.

Ask The Post about a narrowly missed shutdown and Democrats’ struggling agenda