The American public has lost patience with Washington. The question is, now what?
Congress is unable to do its job. It displays neither competence nor responsibility. It lurches— reeling from crisis to crisis, each one self-manufactured in an effort to postpone the reckoning from some earlier crisis. It shut the government down over a temporary budget. Now it’s threatening the financial credibility of the U.S. government and the security and safety of the American people. Three years of last-minute spending decisions have culminated in a television standoff with no actual negotiations.
Too many members of Congress reject the notion that accommodation and time-honored procedures allow them to fulfill their responsibilities to the American people. They use their legislative skill to engage in brinksmanship rather than address the country’s fundamental problems. Economic growth? Creating jobs? Putting the federal budget on a sustainable path? Don’t look to Congress. They’re too busy coming up with the next short-term tactic to confront the other side. Every day they dither, they keep the government from addressing the nation’s real problems.
Even worse, they’ve managed to raise real questions in this country and abroad about whether our system of government can work. Are we saddled with a national legislature paralyzed by unending conflict? Are we capable of tackling our major problems? We are on the road to a government that cannot plan, a country shackled by perpetual uncertainty, and a loss of faith in our institutions both at home and abroad.
We do not have to continue down that road, but we do have to confront a core problem. The political center in Congress has weakened to the point of ineffectiveness, if not near-irrelevance.
That’s fine with some people in Washington, who are comfortable with gridlock and don’t think its consequences will be dire. Our government’s inability to deal with problems, they argue, is good— a government that’s able to act, they believe, creates more problems than it solves.
Likewise, some people acknowledge polarization as a problem, but blame it on an electorate that prefers a divided government, split between the parties. All I can say is that divided government in the past— think Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill— didn’t keep Congress from creatively addressing national challenges. Divided government is not easy, but it is not unusual and it can work.
Politicians don’t deserve all the blame. Voters share responsibility: more people have to turn out to vote. The more people who vote, the better the chances to strengthen the political center— that is, moderates and pragmatists. That’s because low turnout brings out the most ideologically intense voters, who in turn reward the most polarizing candidates. A Congress more representative of the American people rests on expanding efforts to convince people to vote, and beating back the barriers to voting.
The second solution lies with members of Congress. Contemplating a government shutdown, a Kentucky congressman recently explained his stance by saying, “All that really matters is what my district wants.” This is not an uncommon view, but it’s a distressingly limited one. Our system depends on members who believe it’s also their responsibility to lead and inform voters, who are willing to weigh the national interest as well as parochial concerns and who have confidence in our system to resolve political differences.
In other words, we need members of Congress devoted to making the system work. We need men and women in office who understand that when the voters give us a divided government, they have no choice but to accept the distribution of power and work with it, regardless of what they wish were the case. We need legislators who realize that those on the other side feel just as passionately and deserve their respect, and who are committed to finding a solution to our problems.
We change laws in our democracy and solve our most difficult issues in this country not by bringing government to a halt, but by fighting out the issues before the voters in an election. At the end of the day, we have to move the country forward— and we need to elect members of Congress who are willing and able to do that.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.