To fix America, fix Congress

Updated: Jun 3

Polling data confirm overwhelming public dissatisfaction with the status quo in America. In this light it is not surprising to see Bernie Sanders’ emergence among Democrats or Donald Trump leading the Republican polls. These are the candidates who appear most likely to disrupt business as usual in Washington. Yet, how can any of these candidates hope to lead the nation effectively without reforming our polarized, self-serving and gridlocked Congress? After all, we are a nation of laws and the president must depend on Congress to enact or change them.


The sad truth is that Congress has become a fundamentally corrupt and inept institution that bears little resemblance to anything the founding fathers envisioned. Members today have huge staffs and office budgets, far beyond those of any other nation; they have gold-plated health care and retirement systems, beyond anything in the private sector; the committee system is wastefully and massively duplicative, resulting in often-overwhelming demands for reports and testimony imposed on the executive branch. Worst of all, the cost of elections is such that members spend almost all their time chasing and accommodating special-interest donations rather than focusing on the needs of their constituents and the country. As a result, absent congressional reform, the many legislative proposals the candidates are offering will either be dead on arrival or almost unrecognizable if their remnants survive the gauntlet of special-interest politics on Capitol Hill.


This is not hyperbole, the data are clear: Legislative output has declined by two-thirds since the 1970s, more than ever before votes in Congress fall along strict party lines, incumbents exploit their access to gain an almost unbeatable fund-raising advantage over challengers, and the perverse necessity of massive fund-raising ensures constant violation of state and federal laws prohibiting members of Congress from exchanging legislative favors for campaign contributions. It is no coincidence that most defense-industry campaign contributions go to members of the defense and appropriations committees or that Wall Street dumps billions into political campaigns, especially to members of the congressional tax-writing committees. These are hard-nosed business decisions, not charitable contributions.


Every day these and other interest groups are buying the influence that our electoral laws in theory prohibit, defying our founding father’s conception of a democracy based on “one man, one vote.” It is not that members of Congress are evil — most are well-intentioned — but they are trapped in a dysfunctional system that requires them to raise millions of dollars to remain in office. As Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois has said, “I think most Americans would be shocked — not surprised, but shocked — if they knew how much time a United States senator spends raising money. And how much time we spend talking about raising money, and thinking about raising money and planning to raise money.”


To make matters worse, most senators and many congressmen rely on contributions from special-interest groups in San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., that have no connection to the states and districts they represent. No wonder they become more responsive to those interests than their own constituents. This is a practice that would have appalled the founding fathers.


The widespread practice of gerrymandering, in which congressional district boundaries are drawn by state legislatures to ensure dominance of a single political party, either Republican or Democratic, further polarizes Congress. Members from these districts do not need to seek consensus or accommodate moderates; their greatest electoral concern is being flanked by a more extreme member of their own party during the primaries. This is one of the primary reasons Congress is so paralyzed of late.


In sum, the legislative branch has become the center of a massive, self-serving lobbying and influence-peddling industry invested in the status quo, one that has become more responsive to special interests than the national interest. No candidate who does not recognize the severity of the problem can pretend to be serious about leading the nation or fixing America’s ills. The political gridlock that results is plainly evident from the steeply declining legislative output of Congress and its inability to achieve consensus on vital economic and national-security issues, such as immigration, cyber-security and deficit reduction.


A variety of proposals could help to rectify the situation, ranging from campaign finance reform (e.g., matching funds for challengers), to term limits, to methods of minimizing gerrymandering. Yet few of the presidential candidates, of either party, seem to recognize the severity of the problem or have a plan to fix the system.


Voters who want real change should confront the candidates on congressional reform and try to ensure it becomes an active topic of discussion at upcoming presidential debates. If we fail to address it, the next president will be unable to lead effectively, little will change and we will have no one to blame but ourselves.


Read the original article on Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.