Of Course Washington Is Broken: It Was Designed to Be

Want an end to gridlock and brinkmanship? Let’s dial back the founding fathers’ obsession with checks and balance

For a group of people dependent on public support for its professional survival, Congress has done a truly remarkable job of alienating the American public.

Over the past four decades, the polling firm Gallup has regularly asked U.S. adults about their level of confidence in various institutions. In June of this year, Congress hit rock bottom: Just 10 percent of respondents expressed a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the legislative branch of government. That’s down from 42 percent in 1973—a year blighted by an international oil crisis and marked by the country’s withdrawal from Vietnam.

You may think you know how Congress came to be so reviled: blame wealthy donors, political operatives focused on their party’s base, the gerrymandering of congressional districts, and an increasingly partisan media. Faced with these forces, elected representatives have become ever more extreme, divided, and dysfunctional. They’ve gridlocked Congress, which in recent years has lurched from one crisis to another.

At least, that’s the narrative we usually hear. Unless you’re a political-science junkie, however, you probably don’t know that this story is largely a work of fiction. Take a hard look at the evidence, and most of the explanations offered for Washington’s deep divisions crumble—which means we shouldn’t place much hope in modest tweaks proposed to pull our political leaders back toward the center.

No, if you’re yearning for an end to the deadlock—and be careful what you ask for—then it’s time to consider more radical solutions. We need to ask whether a band of eighteenth-century revolutionaries who had just thrown off the yoke of colonialism really have the answers we need for effective government today.

There is one part of the familiar narrative about Washington that is rock solid: Both the House and the Senate have become steadily more polarized over the past six decades. These graphs show the parties’ ideological leanings on economic policy, calculated using a tool called NOMINATE, which assesses the stances of individual members from their roll-call votes.

Poles apart: The ideological split between the two parties has grown since the middle of the last century. Dates are the first year of each Congress. Source: Voteview.com

To explain this trend, political commentators like to point to biased congressional redistricting. But this analysis doesn’t stand up under scrutiny. First, gerrymandering offers no explanation for polarization of the Senate, where redistricting is not an issue. Even in the House, where the rift is more marked and Republicans in particular have marched to the right, the story falls flat. Gerrymandering has been happening, and in recent years it has delivered a few seats to the Republicans, but districts that haven’t been redrawn also follow the polarizing trend.

Want to blame partisan media outlets for the mess? If so, you’re crediting them with influence they only wish they had. Talk radio and the dueling realities of Fox News and MSNBC may have risen to national prominence as Washington has grown more divided, but evidence that the media drives political outcomes is equivocal at best. The best-known study on the subject exploited Fox News’s patchy penetration of U.S. cable-TV markets between 1996 and 2000. It found that the channel’s presence seemed to boost the Republican vote by about half a percentage point.

A more recent attempt to measure the effect of media bias came up completely empty-handed. One month before the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial election, a team from Yale University sent voters in the state a free ten-week subscription either to the conservative Washington Times or to the more liberal Washington Post. Voters who were sent either subscription were more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate than were controls who received neither paper. Exposure to media seemed to have an effect, but not the political slant of the coverage.

Surely someone has thought it all through, and come up with solutions? The clearest prescription, from Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, both based in Washington, DC, includes a package of measures to wrest control from the ideologues and to bring the disenchanted center back into play: open primaries, mandatory attendance at the polls, and greater use of public funds to leverage campaign contributions made by small donors.

Sadly, these fixes are not much more convincing. Primaries in which only the party faithful can vote are often blamed for the emergence of candidates with extreme views. But some states already operate open primaries, and they don’t seem to help. Indeed, the most complete analysis of the issue concluded: “We find that the openness of a primary election has little, if any, effect on the extremity of the politicians it produces.”

Fining people small sums if they fail to turn up at the polls—while allowing them to register a “none of the above” protest vote when they do—is the norm in a handful of other countries. It might help in the U.S., but the best evidence Mann and Ornstein offer comes from conversations with Australian politicians who claim the practice encourages them to court the majority of voters who hold moderate views. So we’ll have to leave that on the shelf as intriguing idea yet to hurdle Evidence Base’s bar of acceptance.

What about campaign finance reform to lessen the impact of big money by leveraging the influence of smaller donors? Candidates have certainly become more reliant on donors who can throw around large sums of cash. But this proposal assumes that small donors are more moderate than their higher-spending counterparts, and new research from Adam Bonica of Stanford University, in collaboration with the team behind the NOMINATE scores, shows that if anything, their views are more extreme.

That’s not to say that campaign finance reform in some form wouldn’t help. But it’s notoriously difficult to control the influence of money in politics: In solving one problem, you tend to introduce another.

When I pressed him on the lack of hard evidence that any of his and Mann’s proposals would make a big difference, Ornstein conceded that there are no magic bullets: “You hope that a bunch a changes that would have impacts at the margins would begin to turn this giant ocean liner around before it runs into the cliff.”

It’s a laudable sentiment, but I’m not convinced by it. Even the inventors of the scores used to quantify polarization in Congress seem somewhat stumped. Their best shot is that the division has evolved hand in hand with growing economic inequality. In their book Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches, Keith Poole, Howard Rosenthal, and Nolan McCarty make a strong case for this idea. But it’s hard to untangle cause and effect, and their analysis doesn’t lead to a practical solution for Washington’s woes: While President Barack Obama is making noises about tackling inequality, any attempt to gain serious traction on the issue would soon be shot down as “socialism” by partisans on the right.

With no clear way in sight of reclaiming the center, it’s easy to get mired in pessimism. “There’s not much chance that these problems are going to be dealt with until we’re literally at the point of bankruptcy,” laments Poole, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. “There’s going to be a calamity. There is no cure.”

Wow, that is bleak. I thought economics was supposed to be the “dismal science,” but on this showing, political scientists beat economists, hands down.

There is another way of looking at the problem, however, which involves a longer historical perspective. Here are those NOMINATE graphs again, taken back to the late nineteenth century, and with the Democrats split by geography. Now the current divide in Congress doesn’t look so extreme. If anything needs explaining, it’s why the ideological divide between the parties narrowed in the mid-twentieth century.

Back to the future: The bipartisan period of the mid-twentieth century was the historical exception. Source: Voteview.com

The answer has everything to do with the politics of race. The Democrats were founded as a liberal party, but after the victory of the Union in the Civil War—led by Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans—they became dominant in the white rural South and attracted supporters of a more conservative bent. By the middle of the last century, with liberals reenergized by the New Deal, the Democratic Party was composed of two distinct wings with diverging ideological outlooks.

This was the period when the center in politics held sway, but it was based on an uneasy coalition. Once the Democratic leadership embraced African Americans and passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the coalition was broken. The white South has since largely defected to the Republicans, giving two parties with distinct ideological identities and geographic strongholds.

It’s difficult to imagine any issue mixing things up across party lines in a similar way in future. In other words: Today’s marked polarization may simply represent America’s political elite reverting to type. If so, seeking to tone down the ideological extremes of Congress will ultimately be futile.

That needn’t mean eternal gridlock, however. Other countries get by with similarly polarized legislatures, but they do so by letting the majority govern without the checks and balances that dominate the U.S. political system.

This takes us into dangerously radical territory, because now we’re questioning the wisdom of the founding fathers. But let’s think about their motivations, and consider whether their concerns are still relevant.

Those who framed the U.S. Constitution had just fought to free themselves from colonial domination, and they needed to convince skeptical states that the new federal government wasn’t going to be similarly oppressive. The priority wasn’t to make government maximally effective, but instead to tie its hands. “It’s very clear that the founders intended a bias toward inaction,” observes Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver.

Is that useful today? The answer probably depends on how far your own political views diverge from those of the majority. Some on the British left yearned for the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution during the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party swept all before it. And Tea Party activists would be tearing their hair out if the implementation of Obamacare was followed by the rollout of the rest of the president’s program.

But if you don’t like gridlock in Washington, letting the majority have its way more often may be the only viable option. Viewed from this perspective, Senate Democrats’ recent move to limit Republicans’ use of the filibuster to block federal-court nominees looks less like a partisan “nuclear option,” and more like an inevitable, necessary correction. Indeed, some of the political scientists I spoke with for this article see the Senate filibuster as an anachronism, and predict that its days are numbered.

Few are seriously talking yet about reforms that would require a constitutional amendment, such as scrapping midterm elections. As we’ve seen in recent years, these elections can deliver a House of Representatives dedicated to undermining the agenda of the president or can create two chambers, under opposing partisan control, who seem capable of passing little more than gas.

After sifting through the evidence, however, I can see no better way of giving Washington a fighting chance to get things done. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by current efforts to pass a modest bipartisan budget deal: On the difficult issues, Congress is still kicking the can down the road.

Yes, what I’m proposing would mean accepting that sometimes we have to give those whose views we oppose a few years to put their ideas into practice. But whichever side you’re on, you can take comfort in democracy’s main selling point: If we don’t like what our leaders do, we can always vote the bums out.