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What's Wrong With Washington

How much are voters to blame?

Permanent campaign. Getting anything enacted in Washington is tough when the new campaign season starts the morning after the last election. "We have become completely dominated by the permanent campaign. Everything gets filtered through the campaign," Ornstein says, adding that he has seen an attitude of: "If Obama is for it, we're against it, even if it's good for the country."

The recent health care overhaul is a perfect example, Ornstein says. Republicans have opposed — and tried to dismantle — even ideas they originally had supported because they want to draw sharp distinctions between the parties.

Norquist sees the health care law as a different kind of perfect example: It was a government takeover of a major portion of the economy that left Americans angry at political overreaching. "People know what it's like to go to the post office. They don't want going to the doctor to be like that. We have had a massive expansion of government," he says.

The massive expansion of campaigns is undeniable. As costs exploded, lawmakers have needed to raise money throughout their terms to get reelected. Endless campaigning has also diverted their attention and energy from the nitty-gritty of legislating.

To meet heavy campaign demands, lawmakers more often live in their districts so they can spend more time with voters and then fly to Washington for midweek votes. That, Gergen says, has not helped the civility level of political debate and the ability to find compromise.

"They parachute in and parachute out and don't know each other," says Gergen. "It's much easier to villainize someone you don't know."

But Norquist sees the permanent campaign as a healthy part of democracy: "People permanently talking about what to do and how to vote — that's OK."

Citizen shortcomings. Hult says citizens' lack of knowledge and their refusal to vote make it hard for politicians to represent the people.

"Most of us have just given up," she says. "It's our fault as voters."

Ornstein says trouble is unavoidable when voters gravitate toward candidates who brag they don't know anything about politics. "So long as voters continue to be drawn to yahoos whose main claim is: 'I'm not like those other guys,' we are going to get more dysfunction."

Dysfunction by design. Some of government's dysfunction came with the system. "The framers did not want an efficient government," Hult says. "They were concerned that things not be done too quickly."

But the world has changed. Communications, the speed of business and the speed of change are faster than they were in the days of quill pens. Thomas Jefferson and his historic concern for state prerogatives added another dimension to the conflict by protecting a significant governmental role for state initiative that is being revived today. Norquist sees the problem less in the structure of government than in the size.

"The government is not working well because government that gets this big doesn't work well. Make the government smaller and doing things it knows how to do," he says. "The founders wanted government small because they knew government was dangerous. We need to rein it back in."

Next: Influence of lobbyists seen as problematic. >>

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