Reading George Packer's latest piece in The New Yorker was not an eye-opening experience. The sour details of the Senate's dysfunction and myopia came as no surprise, since the legislation produced by that body recently looks both dysfunctional and myopic. No surprise that those responsible for the dysfunction are aware of the problem. No shock that everyone has no idea what to do about it, including the obvious things. Packer's piece tells us much of what we suspect, if not know.
How is it possible to become so disconnected from clear thinking? By clear thinking, I mean the ability to see what is going on and then doing the obvious, simple, direct, most Occam's Razor-like response. Instead, what we have are public officials participating willfully in a system that all of them know doesn't work, yet deciding the clear solutions in plain sight are impossible to implement. For example, in the article, Packer tells the story of a Senate rule that requires the unanimous consent of all senators to allow committees to conduct any meetings after 2:30 in the afternoon while the Senate is in session. Yes, unbelievably, that is a rule. Naturally, just about anything short of a murder trial that requires unanimity will encounter problems:
So, four hours earlier, when Levin went to the Senate floor and asked for consent to hold his hearing, Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, and a member of Levin’s committee, had refused. “I have no personal objection to continuing,” Burr said. But, he added, “there is objection on our side of the aisle. Therefore, I would have to object.”
This is the sort of thing that isn't seen as silly and ridiculous, but is considered standard Washington procedure. It isn't wrong for Burr to use the rules to gum up the works. It is wrong to have such a works in the first place. It isn't Senator Burr's non-objection objection that is the problem here. It is the fact that Senator Burr, or any Senator, has the power to gum up something so mundane as a committee hearing with no explanation and no accountability. It is a blueprint for systemic failure. In the past, different political circumstances and better humans have prevented the rules from being used so counterproductively that they prevent the normal functioning of government. That, in and of itself, is a systemic weakness of catastrophic proportions. If the functioning of government is wholly dependent on the unanimous high moral character of public officials, then what happens when one degenerate ruins the whole thing? Systemic failure.
The Capitol City sees all this with a shrug of the shoulders. In Washington, it is dismissed as a problem for the voters to correct. Obstructionism, they call it. If the voters don't like it, they'll vote against the obstructionists. It's taken as an article of faith that has no basis in reality. In my lifetime, I have never witnessed an election where obstructionism was an issue. Despite the beliefs of the political strategists of the current majority, there is no political cost for obstructionism at the ballot box. The truth is that voting out Mitch McConnell or Ben Nelson won't change a thing. This is a people problem, certainly. But it is much more a systemic problem.
To face the truth, that rules of the game must be changed, is not something Washington is interested in hearing. The lawyers, lobbyists, congressional staff, regulators, fundraisers, political strategists, consultants, reporters, pundits, analysts, think-tankers, former members, activists, officials, media producers, and all of the rest...constitute an almost insurmountable force of inertia. The status quo is good for them. It sends their kids to elite schools. It pays for comfortable digs in Fairfax or Montgomery County. It even gets them on television.
Any legislative measure or presidential appointment will set in motion activists who tell the story of why any particular group of people should be afraid. Those people have to hire lobbyists to push one way or the other, because they are not in Washington, a distant capitol. The lobbyists see the need to hire former congressional staff members and former regulators who know the Hill. The congressional staff sees the political dimension necessitating the need for political consultants. The consultants demand payment from fundraisers. Fundraisers protect themselves with lawyers. The consultants message the pundits, who demand facts from reporters, who get the facts from the think-tankers, or the non-facts from the activists, or the pseudo-factoid-soundbytes from the officials. If there were ever anything serious done about it, a lot of the people listed above would be out of work. The system doesn't work, and it's failure is compounded by the fact that those involved have every interest in making sure it doesn't. It is a never-ending machine of cogs slowly going round and round, whizzing and buzzing, cranking, and churning, whistling and spewing fumes. The product? Inertia.
To disassemble this disaster will take more than can be mustered by elections. It will take someone, anyone, to lead the reform of government that works and works well. It will take a force mightier than any president or senator. Election after election brings a president or members of Congress promising to change the way this system works, but the system beats them every single time. I don't know what force will bring about this re-ordering of the status quo, but I am certain it will not come about as the result of an election. All too often, we have seen that "change elections" don't change the system.
This system was brought about by the actions of humans and therefore it can be destroyed, or at least reformed by humans. I believe that it can be fixed. In fact, I believe most of the players involved believe the same thing. The question is, when will the incentives align toward action and away from inertia? Perhaps a generation or two has to pass into history so that younger people can bring fresh thinking into the picture. Perhaps a revivalist wave of civic-mindedness will sweep across the land and storm the gates of the Forbidden City. Perhaps it will take a cataclysmic event so disruptive of the order, a mighty shock to the system so complete, that the obvious becomes the imperative. I don't know.
I do know that if this nation is to effectively confront the many challenges it faces, the people who constitute the ruling class of the distant capitol must not greet systemic failure with indifference. It has to start with reforming the filibuster. It has to continue with real, serious, meaningful campaign finance reform. Media conglomerates that use the public airwaves have to be subjected to stricter scrutiny for the right to use those airwaves. Lobbyists must not be allowed to contribute to or raise money for the people they are lobbying. Congressional members and staff must be banned from becoming lobbyists, federal contractors, or people who use the public airwaves for some period of time after leaving public service. Public service has to return to meaning what it says instead of being another rung on the corporate career ladder.
Maybe, just maybe, we would then have a government that sees problems and solves them.