Looking in on the activity (or lack thereof) so far this congressional session, a casual observer might be forgiven for thinking the Republican Party to be a rump opposition organization battling against a government eager to promote a contrary agenda.
The GOP certainly does not act like a party of government, let alone a party with control of both houses of Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court (not to mention a historically high percentage of state legislatures and governor’s mansions).
Despite having more institutional control than any party has managed in decades, Republicans have consistently failed to push the major aspects of their agenda over the finish line.
Obamacare repeal failed multiple times, sapping political capital, energy, and credibility with each successive implosion.
Now they’ve moved on to tax reform, but instead of providing an omnibus plan for curbing spending and transforming the tax code we have instead been proffered yet another more-of-the-same plan that does little or nothing to actually curb spending.
It does offer significant tax cuts and some welcome simplification of the byzantine tax code, but tax cuts without a concurrent plan for trimming spending will, of necessity, increase debt.
If the government wants to let people keep more of their money now, it doesn’t really help to borrow from the future to do it.
When even the Democrats can point to a tax plan and call it fiscally reckless, we should probably rethink what we’re doing.
The latest farcical display is the product of a Congress that has lost its way as an institution; a loss that has been exacerbated by a concomitant devolution of the governing process from the executive branch.
Yet, while the clown-car leadership in the White House can be blamed for many things, the degradation of Congress as an institution stretches back long before the orange rage golem and his gaggle of sycophantic enablers occupied the Oval Office. The institutions and norms that undergirded Congress and its vital processes were destroyed from within.
Many commentators from left and right are eager to assign blame to one side, or even to one person.
Newt Gingrich turned the House of Representatives into a fiercely partisan coliseum; Nancy Pelosi exploited a supermajority to run roughshod over Republicans, moderates, and decency; Mitch McConnell mastered the arcane arts of Senate procedure to subvert the democratically-elected President from another party. All of these accusations have grains of truth and facets of spin and misdirection. No one person, or succession of leaders for that matter, has been the sole cause of the current degraded state of Congress. The blame has to be assigned to a much broader institutional rot.
The American political system relies on checks and balances. Every 5th grade student knows this. But rarely does anyone really stop to consider what that means.
Checking a decision or an empowered institution; balancing power between branches of government and balancing the interests of a population of 350 million people. These are the things our system is meant to do. That does not mean using an institution to further a narrow agenda, or to use control of one section of the government – such as a single legislative chamber – to halt the ordinary business of government. Checks are designed to force compromise.
The pathology afflicting our governing institutions, and our political society as a whole, is nothing less than a rejection of the underlying fabric of our entire system of government. It is difficult to pass laws in the United States by design. Our system of government is different from almost any other democratic state in that it only functions effectively when there is a degree of harmony between all institutions and branches of government.
While parliamentary democracies can form coalitions and pass laws by simple majority (see Germany or the United Kingdom), and most presidential systems give over-weaning power to the executive (see France), the American system creates and sustains three truly coequal branches of government – even when the executive is elevated radically beyond its constitutionally-prescribed remit, as has occurred in recent decades.
Fear of a tyrannical President Trump rolling back the Constitution has given way to the realization that the powers of the executive are only as great as the other two branches – especially Congress – allow them to be.
Yet, even as Congress has spent the past year reasserting its relevance in a way it failed to do even during the long battles between congressional Republicans and the Obama administration, the very act of reassertion has exposed the institutional hollowing that has been in progress for decades.
Getting down to the most basic level, we can say this: Congress (and the government as a whole) has forgotten – or rejected – the art of compromise that is essential for our system to survive at all, let alone function like a normal government.
Compromise may sound like a dirty word to those of us on the fringes of the political discourse trying desperately to insert sanity back into public debate and government decision-making. Yet it is the only thing that can save the constitutional framework that has carried the United States through more than two centuries of tribulation.
Fundamentally, the tribal nature of American politics has to be combated. We elect individual representatives to both chambers of Congress. We elect people, not parties. Our system is designed for deliberative decision-making by people, not for savagely partisan tribes.
We need leaders who understand that party-line votes will rarely, if ever, deliver transformational change.
We need to rediscover the subtle and delicate art of compromise. We need to understand and empathize with the people and politicians who oppose us and find ways to collaborate and build real, lasting solutions to problems of governance.
Working with “the other side” is not treason or a mark of impurity. It is a sign of individuals, empowered by the citizens of the nation, mature enough to speak on human terms with others empowered likewise.
We need more of it – a lot more!
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