It's been a while now since Senator Evan Bayh's announcement that he would not seek reelection. Bayh explained his decision as the product of frustration with the gridlock in Congress, "brain-dead partisanship" and "strident ideology". Commentators from all across the political spectrum have focused on the decision as further evidence of the hardening of party lines on the Hill and the continued dysfunction of Congress. An increasing number of voices have even begun to be heard suggesting that somehow America has simply grown ungovernable.
Bayh is right. Congress is a mess, and the continued inability of that institution to deal with our most pressing national problems is a disgrace. But, let's be clear. The problem we are facing is not, strictly speaking, with Congress itself. It is with the two major political parties who currently control that institution.
Pull together any random grouping of your friends and acquaintances. Ask them what they think the biggest issues are facing our country. Then ask them what they think ought to be done about them. You won't get unanimity. We all know that, but I think you'll find that a clear majority will agree on a lot of things and on some general pragmatic solutions:
That our federal government is too big, too wasteful and that our budget is out of control. We simply cannot afford it. We have to find a way to cut its size and get our spending under control.
That we need a strong defense, but that we should not be the world's policeman. That we ought to take some of the untold billions we spend on worldwide military deployments and foreign wars and get serious about energy independence.
That we are a nation of immigrants, but that we are also a nation of laws. Illegal immigration needs to be stopped. Employers who hire illegal immigrants need to face stiff penalties. Our unemployment rate nationally is somewhere around ten percent. If there are jobs available, they should be going to US citizens not people who have flaunted our laws to get here.
That we cannot continue to export our entire manufacturing base, "outsource" all our good paying jobs and still delude ourselves into thinking that we will remain the wealthiest nation on earth. We have been living off borrowed money for at least a decade. The bill has come due. It is time to make things in America again.
That our health care system is broken and needs fixed. That means doing whatever it takes to get costs under control, to put doctors back in charge of health care and to ensure access to quality care by all Americans. The objective is not to ensure that the insurance companies can continue to make massive profits but to take care of our fellow citizens.
The fact remains, however, that our Congress is doing virtually nothing about any of these issues, and the primary reason is not because of some arcane rule of procedure in the Senate or because of an unwillingness to compromise. It is because while you and I and most other Americans may be in general agreement on the kinds of issues I outlined above, our representatives in Washington do not share those views. It is not that they are trying to reflect your wishes and failing. It is that they are deliberately pursuing policies contrary to those that most Americans would like to see.
You may want changes to our trade policy that will protect American jobs and support our middle class. It does not matter. Under both Democratic and Republican Administrations for twenty years at least we have been selling off the industrial heartland of this country and shipping our manufacturing base abroad.
You may want strong action on illegal immigration, but your Congressman is unlikely to feel the same way. If he is Republican, he is looking out for the interests of his corporate sponsors, who prefer cheap, unorganized foreign labor to the prospect of negotiating with American employees. If he is a Democrat, he is likely too frightened of being attacked by the left wing of his own party which increasingly seems to feel that we are under some sort of moral obligation to offer safehaven to the whole world within our borders.
You may want some kind of action on energy independence, but it is unlikely to materialize. Democrats oppose the expansion of the use of coal, drilling for new oil in our own waters and more nuclear power plants. Republicans seem to oppose virtually everything other than more reliance on big oil.
The examples are endless. The problem is not that our elected representatives are unable to do what we want to do. It is that they are unwilling to do it. Put most succinctly, they may hold public office, but in the strictest sense, they no longer "represent" us. Yes, Congress is a mess. But, it's not the institution that is broken. It is the parties that control it that are the problem.
Time to throw them out and start again.