Why Washington Can’t Be Fixed

And is about to get a lot worse.

US Sen. Richard Lugar, R-IN.
Sen. Richard Lugar

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

The politician’s words captured the moment. “This is a historic time … and one side simply has to win out over the other.” It wasn’t Roosevelt describing the need to vanquish the Germans or Bush echoing his call for a “war on terror.” It was Richard Mourdock, the Tea Party favorite who yesterday ended the career of moderate Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in the Indiana Republican primary, explaining how he sees his new job. Lugar was the most recent moderate legislator to be shown the exit. But moderates of both parties are disappearing from the Senate and House at a rapid clip. According to Nate Silver, of 27 moderate Republican senators in office in 2007, only six of them—at most—will return to Congress next year. And a new wave of Tea Party-backed candidates are leaving no question about where they stand. As Mourdock told Fox News, “I have a mind-set that says bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.”

In their new book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein offer both an insightful diagnosis of the problem of a broken Washington and a set of proposed solutions. Their diagnosis is mostly right—there’s a mismatch between our form of government and our new, fiercely ideological political parties. But their proposed solutions won’t get us very far thanks to the very pathologies they identify. The cliché is true: Washington is broken. But it’s even worse than Mann and Ornstein say: It can’t be fixed.

Think of the most pressing domestic problem facing the country today. Whether you choose persistent unemployment, the struggling economic recovery, the housing market, health care, the social security fund crisis, or the ballooning national debt, chances are good that there is consensus that the problem is real and that the president, a blue ribbon commission, or someone in Congress already has proposed some solution. And chances are even better that the proposed solution has no realistic chance of being enacted into law.

The problem, Mann and Ornstein tell us, is that we have increasingly ideological parties working in a constitutional system premised on the need for continued compromise to get things done. Thanks to our Constitution and the rules of the House and Senate, any piece of legislation must run through a series of “vetogates” to get passed, from congressional committees to the Senate filibuster. (Schoolhouse Rock’s take is a bit quaint. Try the Daily Show instead.)

Without supermajority support for proposed legislation, it is next to impossible to get anything through Congress these days. There is no question that parties have become more ideological, with the most conservative Democrat more liberal than the most liberal Republican in the Senate. (The causes are complex, but come in large part from the movement of Southern conservatives from the Democratic to Republican Party with the passage of civil rights legislation.) Partisan competition is so intense these days that the minority party does what it can to block even the good ideas of the other party, in order to gain electoral advantage in the next election. And just wait for the next Supreme Court nomination.

Mann and Ornstein have gained the most attention for their claim that Republicans are more to blame than Democrats, a charge which seems unfair. As Chris Cillizza explained, many of the extreme ideological Republicans in the House are doing exactly what other members of the House are doing: representing the interests of the constituents who elected them. The Tea Party crowds who pushed for more extreme legislators got just what they hoped for. It is not only the legislators who have a strong ideological, no compromise attitude: The voters who elected them do, too. And Democratic legislators have shown they can throw up roadblocks as well as Republicans.

The focus on whether Republicans are more to blame has distracted from the fundamental truth in Mann and Ornstein’s book: If such ideological polarization persists, we would be much better off with a British-style parliamentary system rather than our traditional “separation of powers” approach to government. In a well-designed parliamentary democracy, the majority party can actually govern, and voters can punish that party when it governs badly or things go wrong. Voters hold politicians accountable.

Mann and Ornstein don’t propose an actual move to parliamentary democracy, which would require major amendments to the Constitution along the lines we are unlikely to see in our lifetimes. And they reject a number of reform proposals which they call “bromides to avoid,” including waiting for the system to correct itself, a third party (such as Americans Elect), a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, term limits, or full public financing of elections.

Among the changes they want to see to our political system are voter registration modernization (making it easier for people to register to vote); compulsory voting (or at least efforts to end state restrictions on voting); moving election day from Tuesday to a weekend; putting congressional redistricting into the hands of citizen commissions, as was recently done in California; allowing more open primaries whereby non-party voters can vote for party nominees; the use of alternative voting systems (such as instant runoff voting), whereby people who vote for less popular candidates have their votes reallocated to higher vote-getters to produce majority winners; and revamped campaign finance laws to improve disclosure, take lobbyists out of the fundraising business, and prevent candidates from coordinating with Super PACs.

Of course, most of these reforms would never clear the hurdles of our hyper-partisan atmosphere. More importantly, they hardly seem likely to fix Washington and end polarization. The basic gist of these reforms is to increase the number of voters in both primary and general elections. Mann and Ornstein expect these voters to be more moderate, and in turn they will choose less ideological senators and representatives. These new members will then agree to pass legislation in the spirit of compromise.

But why would these nonvoters-made-voters necessarily be any more moderate than the voters we already have? If parties did not have to worry about getting out the vote, they might do a lot more to get their base excited about their candidates, and politics could get even nastier. We just don’t know.

Mann and Ornstein also offer a second set of reforms, including making it harder to filibuster bills in the Senate, strengthening executive power (so that voters would hold the president more accountable), and having the media and others with clout in society shame extreme members of Congress into moderation. Some of these are nonstarters. Republican House members will wear excoriation by the New York Times editorial board—or nowadays almost any media outlet—as a badge of honor.

Making it harder to filibuster legislation would move the Senate toward a more majoritarian institution (although not really majoritarian, since each state gets the same two Senators regardless of state population). While filibuster reform might be helpful to end gridlock, it would not solve the problem of polarized parties, separation of powers, and lack of accountability. Imagine if Mitt Romney is elected president, Republicans maintain control of the House and Democrats (barely) keep the Senate, with a weakened filibuster rule. If things go poorly, would voters be inclined to blame Republicans or Democrats? The answer again is unclear.

Mann and Ornstein have done a great public service in opening a dialogue on how to fix the mismatch between our political and constitutional systems of government. But we need to go back to the drawing board on how to fix Washington. And if no-compromise candidates like Richard Mourdock are our future, things will have to get much worse before they get better.