Every election has a dominant issue. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economy, and Obamacare were some of the top issues in 2008 and 2012. While I wait for the dominant themes of this election cycle to crystallize, I also feel that none of these issues will be resolved if the dysfunction in Washington is not fixed first.
The one thing everybody agrees on is that “Washington is broken“. The approval rating of congress has rarely topped 25% in almost five years. Not surprisingly, everyone that is running for president claims either to be an “outsider” or that special insider that is in Washington, but not of it. But if politicians are to blame for the gridlock and dysfunction in Washington, what about the voters that elect these politicians? Aren’t they also responsible?
To me, the dysfunction in Washington is an extension of the deeply polarized views of the voters. The main consequence of this polarization is the creation of an elected class that will not agree on anything, and therefore will accomplish nothing. Effective government in the United States requires putting one’s agenda in the context of the size of the mandate they receive. For instance, the margin of Obama’s victory in 2012 was 51% to 47%. In theory, there are at least two solutions for implementing such a mandate: (1) Let the majority rule. In other words, if a party wins the election, let them vigorously implement their agenda. This is accomplished by letting all bills pass on a simple majority basis; or (2) Pass bills through constructive negotiation with the minority, given that the minority still represents a very significant portion of the population.
In this regard, the constitution of government in the United States clearly favors the second option. For instance, power in the government is distributed between congress and the president, and in many instances, the party that controls the presidency is distinct from that which controls the majority in congress. Additionally, the constitution provides important protections for the rights of the minority, especially in the senate. One would expect that these checks and balances would induce politicians to collaborate and work vigorously towards reaching a consensus. Alas, politicians today have chosen stalemate over consensus, and it is my opinion that the process by which voters select these elected representatives is a major contributing factor to the dysfunction in Washington.
As an example, let us consider how presidential candidates are selected these days. Both democrats and republicans want their candidates to pass a series of litmus tests to establish the purity of their liberal or conservative ideologies, respectively. Of course, each side feels that moral clarity exists solely in their viewpoint, and so they seek the candidate that will most strongly reflect their principles. But in this sea of ideologues, no one ever talks about how they will implement their agenda. Just look at the tax plans of the candidates that are generating the most excitement among conservatives and liberals. On the right, we have Donald Trump’s plan, whose tax cuts will reduce federal revenues by $9.5 trillion in the first decade alone. Unless he pairs these tax cuts with very large (read impossible) spending cuts, his plans would lead to record budget deficits and increase the national debt by $11.5 trillion in the first decade alone. Meanwhile, on the left, we have Bernie Sanders, whose plans will raise taxes and increase government revenue by a whopping $15.3 trillion over the next decade alone. This increased revenue will not be used to pay down the national debt, but rather finance a series of government programs. Obviously, both plans will be dead on arrival. Currently, it is estimated that republicans will retain their majority in the house of representatives. The fate of the senate is less clear, but in the end, it wouldn’t matter anyway. For instance, even if republicans retain the senate, democrats will surely filibuster any plan to cut taxes on wealthy individuals. Similarly, even if democrats win the House and senate majorities, republicans will surely filibuster any tax increases, let alone the massive ones Sanders is proposing to help finance new government programs. With their tax plans suspended, how will these ideologues meet the promises they made to the voters? They will not. And they are being irresponsible, if not dishonest, when they claim that they can deliver on their promises, if elected.
In summary, I feel that a major factor underlying the dysfunction in Washington is the triumph of ideology over responsibility. While the electorate hopes for a productive government, it also selects candidates based more on ideological purity than their ability to lead and establish consensus. Our collective responsibility should be to reject candidates with outlandish, divisive, and close-minded proposals, and select those whose plans have the room to maneuver, work collaboratively, and ensure progress through consensus. Only then can we hope to elect effective governments that can truly fulfill their mandates.