Why Washington is broken

Washington is broken. That’s the slogan Mitt Romney adopted in the waning days of the New Hampshire primary. And while the former Massachusetts governor trailed John McCain, his three words captured the dominant mood of the presidential campaign so far.

Every one of the leading candidates repeated the word “change” as often as possible, like some mystical chant that would levitate them to victory. A typical comment came from Barack Obama: “The time has come to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that’s consumed Washington.”

Meanwhile, a group of moderates from both parties were meeting at the University of Oklahoma and issuing a statement that made the same point. The country, they said, was failing to address critical problems like budget deficits and energy independence “primarily because rampant partisanship has paralyzed the ability of government to act and lead.”

They’re right, and the country agrees. Only one in three voters approves of President Bush’s performance; only one in four likes the Congress; three out of four say the country is headed in the wrong direction.

There are many reasons why the capital is “broken,” but the core explanation is this: Both parties calculate almost every decision in terms of their political advantage, not the public interest. They want to win points, not solve problems. They are deathly afraid of angering their base supporters, and sharing credit with their rivals, even though that’s the only possible way to get anything done.

Just look at one issue: health-insurance coverage for children (which Hillary Clinton stressed on the stump in winning New Hampshire). There is no better way to spend taxpayer dollars than keeping kids healthy and out of costly emergency rooms. Congress did pass a bipartisan measure extending coverage to 10 million children, but Bush vetoed it and lawmakers upheld his action.

The bill financed the expansion by raising tobacco taxes – a smart idea, since higher prices would also reduce teenage smoking. But the president adamantly refused to cross his most conservative supporters and consider tax increases of any kind. Democrats were also reluctant to compromise, believing that gridlock gives them a great issue for the fall campaign. Bottom line: paralysis.

If Washington can’t get that one right, how can it deal with much tougher problems that will face the next president – global warming, uninsured adults, retiring baby boomers?

When political advantage is the only goal, any lawmaker who tries to reach across party lines immediately takes fire from his or her own ranks. Consider McCain’s courageous attempts to work with Democrats like Ted Kennedy on immigration reform. To hear his fellow Republicans, you’d think McCain represented Hades (Kennedy’s home state), not Arizona.

Beyond this mind-set of hyper-partisanship, a series of structural problems makes fixing a “broken” capital even more difficult:

– Congressional districts: More than 90 percent of House members are guaranteed re-election in safe districts, so they have virtually no incentive to listen to dissenters or cooperate with rivals.

– Filibusters: This tactic has become the rule in the Senate, not a rarity, so most bills need 60 votes, not 50 – an extremely difficult standard in a closely divided country.

– Polarization of the parties: Two critical political groups are disappearing, conservative Southern Democrats and progressive Northern Republicans. America is approaching a European model of ideological parties, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. As a result the “vital center” is increasingly a “no man’s land” between entrenched purists.

– Loss of civility: Too many politicians no longer respect each other, or the institutions they serve. Compromise has become a curse word. The defining moment of “broken” Washington came when Vice President Cheney told Democrat Pat Leahy, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, to perform an impossible physical act. This is Baghdad; this is politics as blood feud.

– Interest groups: Huge amounts of money are poured into lobbying efforts and campaign coffers by special interests with only one goal: Preserving their own financial benefits. One example: Drug companies have defeated efforts forcing them to negotiate lower prices with the federal government, costing consumers a bundle.

– Media: Too often, TV (especially cable) rewards the loudest, shrillest voices by giving them extra airtime. Moderates who actually listen to their rivals and don’t insult them need not apply.

These are huge embedded obstacles that won’t be easy to change – no matter how often candidates invoke that word. But presidential leadership matters. Whoever emerges from this campaign and takes office a year now will have a mandate to fix this “broken” capital, and that’s a critical first step.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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