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Over the last few months, the press has been filled with worried articles about the state of the union. “Pundits are beginning to wonder if the system is broken in some fundamental way,” wrote Evan Thomas in Newsweek. “Do partisan polarization, special-interest money, snarling news outlets and public disaffection ensure gridlock into the indefinite future?” asked John Harwood in The New York Times.
These writers and many others are reflecting a building sense within Washington that something is amiss with our system of governance. Faced with a desperate jobs crisis, soaring deficits at both the federal and state levels, a health-care system widely seen as broken, and pressing international issues, the nation’s political leaders are straining to coalesce around solutions. Public attention on this front was galvanized by the much-noticed announcement by Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana that he would not seek re-election to a Congress he’d come to view as gridlocked.
The public itself is no more charitable: In the latest Associated Press poll, just 22 percent of Americans approved of the job Congress is doing.
In this time of worry and discontent, it’s worth remembering a few fundamental truths. First, Congress is not designed to act expeditiously. You can’t create a body whose purpose is to reflect the diverse views and interests of the American people and expect it to settle quickly on what legislation ought to look like.
The Senate in particular was envisioned as a place for bills to “cool” if they lacked broad support. The tyranny of the “60-vote rule” now required to move legislation to a vote may seem extreme, but it’s not entirely out of keeping with the Senate’s original purpose.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that this Congress has enacted several important pieces of legislation (including the stimulus package, investments in green technology, “cash for clunkers” and other measures) and that it has gotten closer than any other in history to reforming the health-care system.
Second, if Congress is divided over how to resolve the most difficult issues besetting this country, there’s a good reason: so are the American people. As Steven Pearlstein wrote in The Washington Post in February, “[T]he truth is that on many issues these days, the American people are badly confused. They want Wall Street to be reined in, but they’re dead set against more regulation. They want everyone to have access to affordable health insurance, but they’re wary of expanding the role of government… They want the federal deficit brought under control, but not if it means cutting entitlement spending or raising taxes.”
It is tempting to blame our political leaders for failing to find a way out of our various dilemmas, but it’s hard to fault them entirely when we want contradictory things.
Yet they do have to shoulder a fair measure of responsibility for the country’s current malaise. We elect our politicians to lead the country and solve its problems, not to indulge in partisan gamesmanship or shrink from making hard decisions because they’re afraid constituents might yell at them.
If Americans want contradictory policies, then it’s Washington’s job to hammer out a solution that’s both good for the country and politically feasible and then sell it to American voters.
Given the current grumbling about how Washington is broken, it’s natural to ask whether there is any hope at all. I would argue that for most of us, as citizens, that question is irrelevant.
Here’s a quick story. In 1780, the skies over much of New England darkened at mid-day: families lunched by candlelight and people found it difficult to read papers held only a few inches away. It was discovered many years later that the cause most likely was wildfires over eastern Ontario. At the time, however, many people thought Judgment Day was at hand. The Connecticut legislature, which was in session that day, considered adjourning. Col. Abraham Davenport stood up to oppose the motion. “The day of judgment is either approaching, or it is not,” he said. “If it is not, there is no cause of an adjournment; if it is, I choose to be found doing my duty.”
So it is with us. There may be cause for discouragement about the current state of affairs in Washington, but whether Capitol Hill and the White House are falling apart or performing splendidly, our responsibility as citizens is the same, to do what we can to improve our own corner of the world and to insist that our elected representatives do their utmost to improve theirs.
If we hold both ourselves and our politicians to account – if we refuse to offer excuses to ourselves for why we can’t be engaged and refuse to accept self-interested behavior from our politicians – that is the best salve I can think of for our country’s current pains. In short, we must choose to be found doing our duty.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.