Why Congress can’t manage to get anything done

Congress is a national embarrassment. Beset by gridlock and petty partisanship, it struggles to do even the simplest tasks. Just last week, for instance, the Senate was at a logjam over whether to approve Jim Bridenstine, President Trump’s selection to head NASA. His approval should have been a no-brainer, but not with our Congress, which can’t do anything easily.

The Founding Fathers designed the Constitution to place Congress at the center of the government. Congress was the branch most representative of the people — judges were to be appointed, and the president was to be chosen via the Electoral College.

We generally don’t think of our government that way anymore. The president is at the center of everyday American political life, and people often vote for members of Congress based on what kind of judges they’ll approve for the courts, which themselves have played a larger role in policy debates. And, of course, Congress is one big mess.

In the best-case scenario, Congress is only able to get big things done during the “honeymoon” phase of a new president — the first six months to a year of what usually turns out to be an eight-year term. Lately, Congress is struggling to spend money — something that has heretofore not been a problem for our profligate government.

These last-minute, omnibus continuing resolutions — passed right on the cusp of another government shutdown — are happening because Congress can’t seem to follow its own budgeting rules.

And now, in the age of Trump, even executive appointments are getting held up amid partisan gridlock in the Senate. Bridenstine’s case is hardly the most egregious. Democrats are set to vote overwhelmingly against confirming CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Trump’s selection to replace Rex Tillerson at the State Department.

This is despite the fact that he received bipartisan support last year when he was nominated for the CIA, and that the administration — and Pompeo personally — is in the middle of delicate negotiations with North Korea.

What is to be done? It’s easy for each party to blame the other. But the truth is that this has been building for years, and both sides have contributed enough to the problem that blame, if it’s not to be apportioned evenly, is still plentiful enough to go around.

Some people say parties themselves are the problem. “Tribalism” is supposedly a bad thing. But that’s just silly. As James Madison wrote back in 1788, the problem of factions or tribes is “sown in the nature of man.” If anything, political parties are a good way to deal with the inherently human tendency to divide into groups, for at least the parties (mostly) fight over the issues that really matter, instead of idle clashes over personalities or trivialities.

Instead, I would recommend an idea put forward by political scientist Russell Muirhead, who distinguishes between “high” and “low” partisanship. Low partisanship is a desire for victory at all costs, and it inspires an “us vs. them” approach. High partisanship focuses on the broad goals of the party, trying to enact its vision of the common good.

Members of Congress are too hung up on low partisanship — thwarting the basic functions of government for the sake of scoring an edge in the next election. But this relentless narrow-mindedness is actually undermining both sides’ efforts to enact their vision of the good society — for whichever side is in the minority just offers the same, Shermanesque opposition that they had to endure when it was in charge.

What the two parties need to do is agree to some rules of the road, at least so Congress can get its essential duties done. Republicans and Democrats are never going to agree on taxes or health care, but both sides could come to terms on procedures so that the Congress can appropriate money in a timely fashion, or make sure the executive agencies are staffed with senior officials who have the confidence of the president.

Admittedly, the idea of a bipartisan compromise seems like a fanciful idea in this age of no-holds-barred partisan combat. But the two sides do have an incentive to compromise — if they ever hope to enact their agendas, they need some kind of agreed-upon rules to at least get the simple stuff done. Otherwise, Congress will continue to grind its gears, regardless of which party is driving.

Jay Cost is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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