It is a cliché to describe Washington, the government, and above all the Congress as “dysfunctional.” William Butler Yeats’ 1919 words apply equally to today’s political discourse: “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The details are all too familiar, and blame can be widely assigned. But the paralysis in Washington deserves a deeper level of scrutiny.
The current crisis centers on the Congress, which has failed to act decisively on the daunting agenda facing a country still mired in recession and in a sour mood reflected in public approval of Congress at around 16 percent. The House of Representatives won’t pass badly needed jobs or infrastructure bills; the US debt rating is still downgraded; once again there is no federal budget; and there is still no agreement on how to tackle the global energy crisis, restore America's competitivene edge, or reform a once-peerless educational system that now lags behind a dozen others. The 62 recently elected Tea Partiers can’t be blamed for everything. But they showcased dysfunction when they cut off their leader, House Speaker Boehner, at the knees and repudiated the “grand bargain” he and President Obama thought they had struck to solve the debt crisis. The political left was only slightly less culpable with its reluctance to seriously negotiate needed reform in entitlements to forestall future bankruptcy.
Senatorial behavior has not been much better. A new low was reached when Republican Minority Leader McConnell confronted the daunting national agenda by declaring the number one priority to be making President Obama a one-term president. The Senate has arranged to paralyze its own decision-making process by applying to virtually all other matters the once rarely used supermajority required to break filibusters. Every major matter now requires 60 votes instead of a simple majority.
The executive branch has also contributed to the dysfunction. The President squandered his first year by focusing on health care instead of the overwhelming crises of unemployment and financial meltdown. He also made a critical misjudgment in leaving action on his agenda to the Congress, which responded with inaction. And he has joined the Congress in putting the future on hold during this unending election year.
Some otherwise good citizens have also created dysfunction. The Tea Party is half right in its disgust with Washington’s performance, but it doesn’t seem to have learned that overturning the card table is not just another way of playing cards. The federal government is clearly bloated in places, and some functions could be performed more effectively by the states or private sector. But fixing that is not the same as mindless slashes across the board without fact-based analysis. The Tea Party is not the Taliban, but its non-negotiable demands and calls for using elective power to dismantle the federal government reject the American concept of governance.
There is an even deeper source of dysfunction that can make the system unworkable: America was designed by its 18th century founders to be hard to govern. The Constitution is a brilliant blueprint for a workable government in the late 18th century. The core of its architecture is a triad of parts designed to avoid return to tyranny by any one branch. The separation of powers requires a conscious effort to bypass it when action is needed.
The new Republic was beset by north-south racial tensions, controversial Supreme Court decisions, threats of New England secession, and a devastating civil war. But the federal government also fostered liberating revolutions in transportation such as canals and railroads, land-grant settlements and colleges producing the world's finest universities, and, in our era, a network of superhighways and a space program that transfixed the world. When all parts pulled together, miracles became possible. But sometimes the Congress blocked the President, while he in turn used executive power to bypass Congress; the Supreme Court reversed presidential actions; and at least one president (FDR) tried to pack the Court with potential sympathizers.
In a perfect world I might favor the parliamentary system, in which the winners of elections have a shot at launching the programs on which they were elected. But realistically, we will live in a system in which a very different political morality is required if we are to find a way out of the current impasse and toward cooperation to solve common problems. Elected representatives can and should represent the interests of their constituents and act on their own principles. But there are times when it is essential for the common public good to rise beyond that constraint and act in the larger national interest, objectively defined.
In 1774 the great English conservative Edmund Burke delivered a speech to the representatives to Parliament from the city of Bristol, England. In it he made the classic case for that philosophy as the highest duty of those elected to govern. It is worth quoting some of his words in the famous "Speech To The Electors At Bristol":
Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form an hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavour to give it effect.
This is the essence of statesmanship. More than anything else, its glaring absence lies at the heart of the current blockage in Washington. But if taken to heart by essentially decent and intelligent men and women in office, the American government could work as it is designed to work in a turbulent epoch that once again desperately needs a stable and strong America at its core.