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Our Democracy No Longer Works and the Problem Is Congress

At the center of our government lies a bankrupt institution: Congress. The US Congress has become the Fundraising Congress.

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"But maybe," the apologist insists, "the problem is in what Americans believe. Maybe we should work hard to convince Americans that they're wrong. It's understandable that they believe money is corrupting Washington. But it isn't. The money is benign. It supports the positions members have already taken. It is simply how those positions find voice and support. It is just the American way."

Here a second and completely damning response walks onto the field: if money really doesn't affect results in Washington, then what could possibly explain the fundamental policy failures--relative to every comparable democracy across the world, whether liberal or conservative--of our government over the past decades? The choice (made by Democrats and Republicans alike) to leave unchecked a huge and crucially vulnerable segment of our economy, which threw the economy over a cliff when it tanked (as independent analysts again and again predicted it would). Or the choice to leave unchecked the spread of greenhouse gases. Or to leave unregulated the exploding use of antibiotics in our food supply--producing deadly strains of E. coli . Or the inability of the twenty years of "small government" Republican presidents in the past twenty-nine to reduce the size of government at all. Or... you fill in the blank. From the perspective of what the People want, or even the perspective of what the political parties say they want, the Fundraising Congress is misfiring in every dimension. That is either because Congress is filled with idiots or because Congress has a dependency on something other than principle or public policy sense. In my view, Congress is not filled with idiots.

The point is simple, if extraordinarily difficult for those of us proud of our traditions to accept: this democracy no longer works. Its central player has been captured. Corrupted. Controlled by an economy of influence disconnected from the democracy. Congress has developed a dependency foreign to the framers' design. Corporate campaign spending, now liberated by the Supreme Court, will only make that dependency worse. "A dependence" not, as the Federalist Papers celebrated it, "on the People" but a dependency upon interests that have conspired to produce a world in which policy gets sold.

No one, Republican or Democratic, who doesn't currently depend upon this system should accept it. No president, Republican or Democratic, who doesn't change this system could possibly hope for any substantive reform. For small-government Republicans, the existing system will always block progress. There will be no end to extensive and complicated taxation and regulation until this system changes (for the struggle over endless and complicated taxation and regulation is just a revenue opportunity for the Fundraising Congress). For reform-focused Democrats, the existing system will always block progress. There will be no change in fundamental aspects of the existing economy, however inefficient, from healthcare to energy to food production, until this political economy is changed (for the reward from the status quo to stop reform is always irresistible to the Fundraising Congress). In a single line: there will be no change until we change Congress.

That Congress is the core of the problem with American democracy today is a point increasingly agreed upon by a wide range of the commentators. But almost universally, these commentators obscure the source of the problem.

Some see our troubles as tied to the arcane rules of the institution, particularly the Senate. Ezra Klein of the Washington Post , for example, has tied the failings of Congress to the filibuster and argues that the first step of fundamental reform has got to be to fix that. Tom Geoghegan made a related argument in these pages in August, and the argument appears again in this issue. (Of course, these pages were less eager to abolish the filibuster when the idea was floated by the Republicans in 2005, but put that aside.)

 
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