“Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
— Mark Twain
Voters have rarely held Congress in high regard. In fact, over the 38 years in which Gallup has asked the question, only 34 percent of Americans typically say they approve of its performance. These days, however, public disgust has never been deeper. In its most recent poll, Gallup found that just 10 percent of Americans approve of how Congress is operating.
Personally, I don’t know what that 10 percent is thinking, because Congress is by any measure a broken institution. While never a paragon of efficiency, in recent years it has lost the ability to function at almost any level. It produces nothing, it solves nothing, it does nothing. It serves solely as a stage upon which political actors strut and prance.
The question of why has many answers, most of them traceable back to the very beginning, to the days in which the Founding Fathers were designing the structure of government that we still retain today.
Given their ties to Great Britain, it would have been natural for the founders to model the American system after the British parliamentary system they knew so well. They didn’t. Instead, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and their colleagues consciously rejected the parliamentary model, and they did so for very American reasons.
First, they had seen enough to recognize that a parliamentary system was a “winner-take-all” system. The party that controls the majority of votes in a parliamentary system also wins the right to name the prime minister, giving it control of both the legislative and executive branches. Our founders distrusted the untrammeled power that produced, so they built a system that conspired against it.
The founders also understood that under a parliamentary system, voters cast their ballots less for individual lawmakers than for the party they represent. Moreover, once in office, members of Parliament owe more loyalty to their party leaders and platform than to the folks back home who elected them. Those were all evils that Madison, Hamilton and others wanted to minimize, even if they could not avoid them altogether.
As a result, the American system of government diffused authority and undercut party loyalty. Individual politicians could be more independent, able to vote their own conscience and the interests of their own district. And with neither party able to dictate to the other, and with the legislative and executive branches acting as competitors, compromise across party lines would be required to get anything done.
For most of our history, that system functioned more than adequately. So what has changed?
I would argue that over the past two decades, our political parties have gravitated toward a mindset in which elections have been nationalized, party discipline takes precedence over personal conscience and compromise is considered losing. It is in essence a parliamentary mindset, which is precisely what the founding fathers had hoped to discourage. And when you take that parliamentary, winner-take-all mindset and graft it onto a political system designed specifically to frustrate that mindset, you get what we’ve got: No movement.
Put another way, if you take a system that is designed to run on compromise, and you deny it access to compromise, it cannot operate.
Historically speaking, the party most responsible for that transformation is the Republican Party, and the single individual most responsible is Newt Gingrich. That observation is not intended as criticism, because from their point of view it made perfect sense. By the early ’90s, they had served as the minority party for most of the preceding 60 years, and they had grown frustrated. They could and did compromise, thus allowing the system to function, but as they compromised they saw the arc of history bending against them. They saw compromise as a way to lose slowly, and they no longer wanted to play that way.
The result, however, is a system in which two things are true: 1) With no compromise, change can now occur only when one party holds absolute dominance and 2) The pursuit of absolute dominance is hopeless, particularly in a country as evenly divided as this one.
The result, sadly, is a system of governance rapidly losing credibility with its people.
– Jay Bookman