Magazine | July 21, 2014, Issue

Glorious Gridlock

Fact: Washington’s inability to get stuff done is the most critical issue facing our nation today — and, who knows, maybe ever.

I know this because D.C.’s lack of productivity has been the focus of countless panel discussions, featuring lots of important people. It’s a topic churned through endlessly by distressed pundits and columnists. It’s a calamity that drives an entire subgenre of political journalism. (“Can this government be saved?” asks one unsettling headline I ran across in USA Today recently.) In neighborhood markets and gas stations across this great nation, from Beacon Hill to Chappaqua to Adams Morgan, Washington’s impotence weighs heavily on the minds of most ordinary Americans.

Well, perhaps. The notion that Washington isn’t “working” is so deeply embedded in our national dialogue, it goes virtually unchallenged. If you’re interested in how the media reach this conclusion, simply calculate the ratio of liberal-policy-agenda items that have been proposed to liberal-policy-agenda items that have passed. Needless to say, D.C. has hit intolerable levels of uselessness. The only thing left to ask is what we can do to end the quagmire that’s gripped this formerly dynamic city.

Whatever we want, answers the administration, that’s what.

When Speaker of the House John Boehner recently announced that he was going to sue the Obama administration for its lavish use of executive power, the president’s former political adviser David Axelrod posed a question worth pondering to his Twitter followers: “Shouldn’t it be taxpayers suing Congress for LACK of action, instead of Congress suing the President for doing too much?”

You can never do too much good, can you? Now, some people — granted, crazy people — might argue that obstructing harmful legislation is an action. And a rather constructive action, at that. These same people might also observe that Axelrod’s insinuation that “action” is to be venerated even if it bends the law or functions outside constitutional norms has an unnerving authoritarian ring to it. They may even reason that justifying unilateral action with infantile slogans like “We can’t wait!” or “It was the right thing to do” is not only in contention for World’s Most Vacuous Populist Rhetoric but creates a dangerous precedent for abuse of power. Even more dangerous than failing to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Act, if you can imagine such a future.

Of course, there are the residual structural problems left to us by the Founders, who, among other silly notions, charged Congress rather than the president with the task of legislating. This is why Obama, through no fault of his own, has been pressed to occasionally “borrow the power,” as one prominent Democrat likes to put it. So while the Supreme Court may have recently (and unanimously) found that the administration abused authority in making recess appointments, Obama promises he will brandish his pen only “when we have a serious issue, and Congress chooses to do nothing” . . . which doesn’t sound autocratic at all.

While some obstacles to progress can be briefly circumvented with creative borrowing, the only way to resolve the partisanship problem in politics is through institutional reform. And, fortunately, a group featuring governors, academics, technocrats, former White House officials, and an array of other smart people — not to mention former Senate leaders Trent Lott and Tom Daschle, a duo that knows a little something about creating a purring political efficiency — have pooled their gravitas in the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform. The group offers beleaguered citizens a blueprint to “ease the friction that has contributed to fiscal cliffs, government shutdowns and a record low public approval rating for Congress.”

How does the plan work? It begins with redistricting reform, so that we can transform an “overtly political process” by granting independent commissions the power to create more competitive districts and generate candidates who “represent the breadth of the electorate,” explained Olympia Snowe, one of the would-be reformers. Who doesn’t dream of a process that yields more malleable politicians who represent everyone? And who doesn’t believe partisan tensions can be lowered by transforming every single district into a battleground that will take tens of millions of dollars to win every two years?

The panel also suggests we move away from party caucuses and conventions, and instead set a national congressional-primary day when independents and members of the opposing party can participate in choosing candidates. All of which seems to undercut the idea of a political party. In Washington, reforms would limit the use of filibusters in the Senate to block debates on bills, but allow the minority greater opportunity to offer amendments. This would, one imagines, allow the minority to feel better about themselves, but ensure that they have absolutely no say in the outcome.

Hey, I don’t want to be part of the problem, but it might be pointed out that the commission fails to take into account one minor issue: They’re dealing with human beings. Perhaps partisanship, as ugly as it can be sometimes, is a reflection of the geographical, ideological, and theological differences of real people. Maybe attempting to subvert diversity of opinion won’t create harmony. Maybe allowing one party to lord it over half the country is not the way to temper anger. And maybe the friction we see isn’t the consequence of a structural problem, or money in politics, or racism, or even the irrational desire of conservatives to be persistently disagreeable. Maybe Americans have philosophical disagreements that can’t be bridged. Maybe trying to cram huge, centralizing reforms through Congress is what creates gridlock. And right now, maybe taking a time-out in the form of political inaction is the best-case scenario. Because maybe Washington is working.

– Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.

David Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun, From the Revolution to Today

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