The presidential election is already in full swing, and you’re hearing candidates predictably talk about how they’ll change Washington for the better. No, for real this time. No, for real, for real. Listen to a few of these men and women, and you’ll hear that our nation’s capital is dysfunctional because their party isn’t in power.But our government is dysfunctional for other reasons—and not because one party can’t meet its own litmus tests or push through enough pet policies. On paper, the United States is a republic with free and fair elections responsive to its citizens. We pride ourselves on our meritocracy and the ability of the people to govern themselves through their representatives.
In reality, as we continue to learn, none of this is really true. Thanks largely to an unfair tax code, ours is a society of haves and have-nots, and most of the wealth now rests with a few haves. Lax campaign finance laws allow the crème de la crème of those haves to turn their private income into campaign donations, and those donations translate into real political influence.
In order to curry more favor with these donors, party leaders instruct our elected officials to spend more time dialing for money and relegate the actual job of legislating to their staffers and interns. And our one recourse short of open rebellion, the general election, functions more like the pomp of a coronation ceremony, with an ideological primary election the only genuine means to remove anyone from power.
No wonder most Americans prefer cockroaches and traffic jams to their Congress.
These forces are real, and I can attest to them as someone who has lived and worked in Washington, D.C. Here are just five that are worth mentioning:
1. The permanent campaign requires a constant need for cash
The source of a lot of trouble is the permanent campaign—the need to constantly raise money and think ahead to the next election. It distracts from actual legislating, takes elected officials away from important public services, and exacerbates the tenor of our political dialogue. According to one leaked presentation by party leaders to the new rank-and-file, lawmakers are expected to spend at least four hours a day dialing donors for money.
2. Our politics is saturated with private money
Our elections are awash in money. According to Open Secrets, the 2012 presidential and congressional elections ultimately brought in more than $6 billion in donations. More than $6 billion! And our lawmakers listen to that money. A now-famous study by researchers at Northwestern and Princeton universities found that lawmakers heeded the concerns of their donors and special-interest groups over the last 30 years more than the voices of their constituents. The researchers concluded that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”
3. Our general elections don’t matter anymore
If you’re familiar with gerrymandering, you understand that many state legislatures are responsible for drawing their electoral districts. In effect, the process allows parties in power to determine their voters. According to FairVote.org, less than 4 percent of general elections were actually competitive nationwide in the last election. As a result, more and more lawmakers only fear opponents in their primaries. This narrows their concerns to the partisan views of a select few over the more mainstream thinking of a larger, more representative electorate.
4. Staffers do much of the legislating
One of Washington’s biggest secrets is that staffers do most of the actual legislating. Former Washington Post reporter Robert Kaiser offered an insight into this process with his seminal “Act of Congress.” In it, he describes how committee staffers essentially wrote the draft bills and policy positions for the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Indeed, these committee staffers often had more power and say-so than rank-and-file House and Senate members. It’s understandable why a lawmaker would rely on his or her staff, but it has a perverse side effect in the sense that it prevents members of Congress from needing to understand the issues or laws. The effect? A dumber Congress, and the outsourcing of their thinking to staffers and even companies. As Kaiser shares, it’s not uncommon for House and Senate members to delegate the critical thinking for an amendment to companies—yes, companies—and then claim credit for the amendment. This is a shockingly common practice: news outlets reported on how one lawmaker tucked a Citigroup-approved amendment into legislation intended to curtail Dodd-Frank.
5. Lawmakers don’t spend time around each other anymore
I’ve listened to George and Laura Bush and Bill Clinton discuss the same problems with American politics these days, and one other issue stands out: few lawmakers spend time with each other in Washington, D.C. This may seem like a strange cause of the dysfunction in our politics, but think about it. If you spend time with someone or know their family, would you feel more comfortable demonizing them on the campaign trail? Probably not. Thanks to the permanent campaign and a proliferation of technology, most lawmakers return to their districts. This means yet again more partisanship.