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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

Illustration by Ross MacDonald

Americans are frustrated with the dysfunction in America.

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. >>

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. >>

Special interests. Among the problems the public sees with government, the influence of lobbyists and other special interests is paramount. In a Pew Research Center study, 82 percent of those polled complained about the influence bought with special-interest money.

Special-interest groups have grown dramatically since the 1960s, Hult says, and in addition to lobbying can run their own issue advertisements during elections. That type of influence can skew what does — or doesn't — get done in Washington.

"My concern is that it isn't an equal playing field. Some of those interests are louder and richer," Hult says. "That may well be why we don't have public policy that is reflective of what most of the public wants."

And when there's a lot at stake and powerful special interests butt heads — as in the case of the deficit-cutting efforts — stalemate is the result, Hult says.

A crisis of public confidence also has ensued.

"It's a huge deterioration of trust in government," Gergen says. "Both right and left feel the system is rigged against them."

The amount spent on lobbying has catapulted from $1.44 billion in 1998 to $2.44 billion last year, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That includes $22 million spent last year by AARP.

And the amount of money the federal government is spending has skyrocketed — giving special interests more incentive to lobby Washington. Federal outlays were nearly $3.5 trillion in 2010, compared with $1.8 trillion 10 years ago.

James Madison argued that the influence of special interests would rise and fall as power shifts back and forth. But, Gergen says, "our problem now is the pendulum is stuck. No one is getting anything done."

Tamara Lytle has reported on Congress, the White House, politics and elections for more than 20 years.

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