Last Friday, the President signed the latest continuing resolution (CR), ending a 35 day shutdown of the Federal Government, the longest in US history. This CR will fund all the government agencies at previous levels until February 15. President Trump and Congress have that time to hash out a compromise related to border security, or the government shuts down again.
Needless to say, this is not how the federal government is supposed to operate. However, our problems funding the government predate the present administration. According to the Constitution, the House of Representatives is supposed to pass appropriations bills funding each arm of the federal government (12 bills in total) before the end of the fiscal year on October 1. The last time the Federal Government completed this process was 1997, and they’ve done it just four times in the last 42 years. Without the regular appropriations process, the Federal government has either been funded by giant omnibus budgets, funding everything in one big bill, or they resort to CRs.
It’s beyond just the funding process. Even controlling all levers of power in Washington for 2 years, the Republicans managed to pass just two noteworthy pieces of legislation, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and the FIRST STEP act.
This leads to the question: Why is our national legislature so bad at legislating?
There are three possible answers to this question. The first potential answer is that our politics have always been a nasty knife fight, we’re just nostalgic for the “good old days” that never actually existed. I think there’s some truth here. Looking back at history and speeches, Congress’s has never been a very harmonious place, the most famous example being in 1856 when a Massachusetts Senator was nearly beaten to death on the Senate floor by an angry South Carolina Representative. The sense there was a time we had civil debate, disagreed peacefully, and worked together is a romanticization.
However, those guys could at least pass a budget, so saying Congress is going to be vicious is an incomplete answer to our present question.
The second answer points the finger at those in Congress, claiming our Representatives and Senators today are worse than they used to be. Only I don’t think this is true. Am I just supposed to believe that Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, and the rest of the gang are of inferior ability or moral character to their predecessors? Is so, how did that happen, and how do they keep getting re-elected?
So our present dilemma is indeed unnatural, and blaming it on the representatives themselves is a cop out. There’s only one other option: the problem is systemic.
I’m going to split this into two subcategories, the first being whether changes to the formal rules of Congress are responsible for the gridlock and uncivil behavior. The evolution of the rules to Congress is an interesting topic, but the short version is right now Congress is organized unusually hierarchically, with power residing primarily in committee and party leaders. This promotes efficiency at the cost of partisanship. Only Congress still isn’t very efficient, and these rules also haven’t changed much over the last 50 years. So this can’t be to blame for Congress’s’ inability to do simple things like keep the government open.
Those on the left instead claim the problem is money in politics, that Congress’s ineptitude stems from the powerful “bribing” congress-people with campaign donations. If we passed campaign finance reform and circumvented Citizens United, the court decision declaring political contributions a form of protected speech, the corruption blocking meaningful legislation would become history.
The only problem here is once again, our problem predates the event in question. Citizens United is a decision from 2010, and Congress’s inability to finance the government dates back to the 1990s. There are arguments to be made about campaign finance, but “getting money out of politics” is not the answer to the question at hand.
The second category is changes to the external pressures on the political system now motivate those in Congress to act in an irresponsible manner. The argument is that we the people have created a system of incentivizes that rewards hyper partisanship and punishes compromise.
For example, let’s go back to the first Brett Kavanaugh hearings, before any sexual assault allegations were brought forth. For a Republican nominee to the court, Brett Kavanaugh was a pretty mainline conservative judge and his credentials were stellar. Fifty years ago, he would have been confirmed by a voice vote within two weeks of his nomination, and we would have all been on our merry way.
Instead we were treated to a long process of grandstanding, featuring protestors in handmaid’s costumes, Kamala Harris blatantly lying, and Cory Booker trying to get himself thrown out of the Senate by releasing documents that revealed absolutely nothing. This of course culminated in Dianne Feinstein releasing a sexual assault allegation in the 11th hour, allegations she had been in possession of for several months.
This behavior makes perfect sense when you understand in politics right now, being a fighter is the ultimate virtue. Harris, Booker, and the other Democrats were able to go back to their constituents with testimonies of their commitment to progressivism and stopping the agenda of the nasty Republicans. For Booker and Harris in particular, it was potentially the launch point for their presidential campaigns. Republicans, for their part, might have been grateful for the whole affair, as it probably resulted into them gaining two Senate seats. It’s a system of perverse incentives which rewards bad behavior.
Ask yourself this, has Congress gotten more democratic and representative of America? It has, and that’s something worth celebrating. But as our ability to monitor our representatives has increased, have they gotten any better at doing their job? Clearly not.
I don’t mean to harp on democracy, but we have a tendency to think democracy is good, period. Only there’s nothing about popularity that makes something effective policy beneficial to society. Democracy is a tool for benevolent government, but it doesn’t automatically create the government and society we want. It requires a moral superstructure, starting with a humble recognition that legislators need space to make compromises, exercise their judgement, and make unpopular decisions. Otherwise they end up representing our worst vices, not our most virtuous aspirations.
Congress is bad at their jobs because it’s become more rewarding for them to showcase their zealotry than their prudence. And what better way to showcase your team spirit than refusing to compromise with the villains on the other team, even if that means 800,000 federal employees have to go a month without pay?