A house divided
Congress’ polarity helps constituents better voice their concerns, but compromise is still necessary
With the budget sequestration looming Friday, threatening the nation with across-the-board spending cuts that would fail to address the long-term debt problem, political pundits abound who are castigating Congress for its inability to compromise. And indeed, our lawmakers’ negligence on this front is disheartening. It sends a message to both the American people and foreign governments that our magnificent experiment in representative democracy may not work so well after all, especially when it comes to reaching a resolution on tough issues. Sending such a message when nations like China are seeking international validation for non-democratic regimes damages the case the Western world has been making for our system of government. But while we should place some blame on our representatives, we must temper our finger-pointing with a healthy dose of reality: a polarized Congress is a product of a polarized populace. In many respects, our legislative branch is working exactly as it should. We may have only ourselves to blame.
It is easy to blame the federal government for our problems. Part of the job description of any congressman or congresswoman is being a scapegoat for the American people. But the easy path obscures the reality of the situation. On many of the issues facing our divided House, “We the people” are also unwilling to compromise. Texans, for instance, facing the issues of illegal immigration firsthand, are unwilling to support a bill that is too lenient on those who enter our country and take advantage of our services without paying taxes. Liberal Massachusetts is ready and willing to back national health care, having experienced the success of “Romneycare,” while voters in Alabama passed an amendment to their state’s constitution in November of 2012 that bans mandating anyone to participate in any health-care plan (an amendment the Supreme Court subsequently nullified). Voters in red states balk at higher taxes to balance the budget, while blue states generally expect a marginal tax increase on the upper bracket before they will allow their representatives to negotiate on entitlement reform.
Or consider more divisive issues. When it comes to questions like a woman’s right to an abortion, the division in Congress is no product of lawmaker stubbornness; the pro-life and pro-choice camps differ too greatly in their views for there to be any compromise. In all these instances, the partisan divide in Congress is merely evidence that our system of government is working: the people’s voice is being heard. The only problem is that the voice of the people is highly discordant.
Our founders constructed a system of government that substituted an efficient, majority-dominated legislature (like the British parliament) with a more complex system with built-in checks and balances that ensured that the voice of the minority could be heard. Naturally, when the minority is sizable and vocal, our government will grind to a halt — and the founders wanted this. They wanted contentious issues to gum up the system, slowing down the gears of legislation so that all facets of the proposals could be hotly debated. They substituted efficient policy-making — the likes of which can be found in countries like China — for a slower, more thorough approach. What we are witnessing now is the fruit of their efforts: the American populace cannot itself reach a consensus on many of the most pressing issues of our day, and so our Congress has dutifully stumbled from political impasse to political impasse.
What can be done? In part, nothing. We live in a tough era of policy making. We have to make difficult decisions; our politics will necessarily be messy. As a people, we can work toward consensus ourselves by engaging with our neighbors through that long-forgotten duty of civic engagement: going to town-hall meetings, having difficult conversations, listening to opposing points of view. Nothing can possibly be more contentious than the issues that our founders faced during the framing of our government — a time that led some of our foremost politicians to face off in deadly duels. Perhaps we need more of that in our modern-day Congress?
But another solution lies with the very body of people I’m absolving of blame. We may have a system of government that thrives on minority rights, but we were also supposed to have representatives that rose above partisan clamor to find solutions amenable to both camps. Some may disagree with me — especially here at Mr. Jefferson’s University — but I believe our representatives ought to in some respect dilute our passions through calm and logical reasoning: the “enlightened statesmen” of Hamilton’s devising must re-emerge in the 21st century. The American people may be divided, and consequently we may elect polarized candidates; but the men and women who represent us in office should also be clear-headed negotiators, able to balance the needs and desires of their constituents with the necessity of compromise. Representatives should always have an eye for advancing the national interest, which requires give-and-take and prohibits ideological entrenchment.
If you take nothing else away from this article, take this: when you elect your next representative to Congress — or any other legislative body — make sure the individual you elect doesn’t sacrifice the ability to compromise in order to faithfully represent your interests. Electing highly partisan politicians will only deepen the Congressional divide, and we’ll have no one but ourselves to blame.
Russell Bogue’s column appears Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.