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What's Wrong With Washington

How much are voters to blame?

En español | Should we blame the bombastic cable news hosts, air conditioning, or maybe Thomas Jefferson? Americans are frustrated with what they see as dysfunction in Washington. So frustrated that the tea party and Occupy Wall Street movements have sprung up from opposite ends of the political spectrum to voice public anger at the federal government.

See also: Let's fix our economic mess.

Uncle Sam Washington government dysfuction

Americans are frustrated with the dysfunction in America. — Illustration by Ross MacDonald

Last summer's spectacle of a debt limit showdown, when the two parties came to the brink of the country's first financial default, left many citizens feeling their government isn't working well. The long-suffering economy, simmering scandals and controversial government bailouts have added to the frustration.

And before Christmas, Congress must either pass $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions or face automatic spending cuts and a possible backlash from credit markets fed up with a lack of progress on the nation's fiscal problems.

"The system is broken," says David Gergen, an adviser to presidents from Nixon to Clinton and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "You'd have to be blind not to see dysfunction in government. And if you're blind, you'd hear about it."

Of course, some people like their government dysfunctional if it means fewer laws being passed, points out Karen Hult, professor of political science at Virginia Tech: "Dysfunction may be in the eyes of the observer."

So what's putting the "dys" in dysfunction? Here are five culprits: polarization, a permanent campaign cycle, a disengaged citizenry, the original design of the federal government, and special-interest lobbyists.

Polarization. This is where the air conditioning comes in. As its use spread, many retirees headed south, and the political makeup of the region became more conservative, making the South more homogeneously Republican and tilting parts of the urban Midwest and Northeast more Democratic. As those demographic changes have shaken out, the regions and the political parties have become less diverse ideologically, says Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, especially as they have been exhorted by batteries of ideological cable and Internet cheerleaders.

Hult agrees that the parties have become more homogeneous within. Republicans are far more conservative, Hult and Ornstein say, and Democrats have moved to the left — though not as much as Republicans have moved right.

The result can be more party-line votes and gridlock. Before the mid-1980s, politicians built coalitions that involved compromises across party lines. But with more cohesive parties, party-line votes are the norm now, says Betty Koed, associate Senate historian. And with the Senate in Democratic control and the House run by Republicans, some deadlock is inevitable.

Ornstein likes to envision a Washington football field of lawmakers stretched out by ideology. In the 1960s and earlier, the politicians would form a bell curve with the bulk of them near the 50-yard line. The current football field map of Congress would have "a barren midfield, a whole lot [of people] at the goal posts and not a few floating in the Anacostia River," he says.

Grover Norquist, an influential conservative who heads Americans for Tax Reform, sees the shift to more homogeneous parties as helpful because voters can see a party label and have a good idea of a candidate's stand on most issues. "Instead of being divided on where your great-grandfather was in the Civil War," he says, "it's divided by principle — bigger government or smaller government."

Next: Endless campaigning interferes with legislating. >>

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