Note: reprinted with author’s permission and appearing here.
Polls show that the Congress continues the downward slide in approval among the American people, yet has the highest number of incumbents. Everyone agrees that voter frustration with Congress’ failure to tackle issues close to people’s pocket books has led to the polarization of the political parties and to the rise of less main stream candidates. We need to ask why there is a logjam in the legislative branch and why do elected representatives no longer feel the need to stay close to the voters.
There was a time when compromise was not a dirty word and men and women of the Senate and House were honored for working with their colleagues while upholding their visions of the country’s future. President Ronald Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill were famous for working out deals. Nowadays, compromise is publicly scorned and once-dignified political debates have become vulgar brawls.
One of the trends which has brought about this stifling result is not increased partisanship, but increased institutionalization of partisanship. Since the mid-1990s when Dennis Hastert, who just went to jail, was Speaker of the House, he required that no bill could be brought to the floor for a vote unless a majority of House Republicans supported the bill. If Democrats wanted to vote for a bill later that was fine, but their input into what was in the bill was significantly marginalized. In 1995-1996, the Republican-controlled House and Senate shut down the government twice for a total of 26 days.
Most recently, Senator Ted Cruz is credited with shutting down the government for 16 days in October 2013. It has been many years since a budget was passed, most departments are operating on continuing resolutions and there is little thinking about rainy day emergencies, such as the appearance of the Zika virus.
Another recent trend is the Grover Norquist anti-tax pledge. The operational effect of the combination of the Hastert Rule and the Norquist pledge was a focus on theoretical orthodoxy, rather than caring for human beings. Handcuffed by these two trends Republican congressmen became more and more like robots, empty vessels doing the bidding of the wealthy political bosses.
While these trends were afoot in the daily operation of the Congress, other trends outside Congress were beginning to be felt. Considerable money and effort at the state level went to restricting the vote. New, specialized and hard to obtain IDs were required. Furthermore, we’ve seen more effort put into creating unfair election districts where the candidate selects his voters.
State Senator Bryce Reeves, who will now run for Attorney General, proved the point before his last election. The Republican-controlled Virginia legislature was reprimanded by the courts for its unfair congressional districts and new district maps have been required and drawn for November’s election. Representatives who select their voters are less concerned about constituents’ concerns and more beholden to their handlers. We don’t even have to discuss the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” ruling. Democracy may be one man one vote, but the flood of dark money and hence, influence of the few, such as the Koch Brothers, is discouraging.
Perhaps the final log in the logjam is the relatively new focus on Constitutional and conservative orthodoxy the idea that the Constitution belongs to only one political party and that there is a one and only true version of conservatism. Speaker Ryan raised this point in his meeting with candidate Donald Trump as he and other Republicans suggest Trump is not conservative enough. The idea the Constitution has turned from being the greatest guideline to democratic government to a written-in-stone mantra which all must worship in one particular way is frustrating.
One local priest of the written-in-stone Constitution is David Brat. He hasn’t voted for a veterans’ bill or a bill to build roads or even a budget. His version of the Constitution has little room for real people: Social Security should be cut, people should not have access to medical insurance and the working poor should be demonized.
So the Trump voter and the Sanders voter, to the extent their complaints are that the government isn’t working for them, have a point. The larger point, however, is what they want and are not getting is a focus on solutions to real world issues: jobs, public debt, transportation, public health, veterans’ benefits and national security.
Candidate Trump — in focusing on Mexican rapists, nuking ISIS and demeaning everyone but old white men — gives voice to populist frustrations among both Republicans and Democrats that the government is broken. He vows that he will just plow through this broken structure and “make America great” again. It is interesting to contemplate what Trump would do if the Senate refused to consider his Supreme Court nominee.
In the face of a shrinking middle class, candidate Sanders’ call that there can be a brighter future also gives voice to the same frustration that government that doesn’t seem to care for all. From his Senate seat, he has seen the Republicans fight President Obama every step of the way for the last seven years. He knows why we have an empty chair at the Supreme Court.
We aren’t going to free up the logjam in Congress with one election, but more balance and less demonization, more focus on issues and less on orthodoxy, might create enough room for people of character, vision, determination, kindness and consideration to come to the fore.