Congress: The Greatest Threat to Our Nation
A political Op-ed
Recently, the presidential candidates have spent a lot of air time discussing what they believe to be the greatest threats to America. Trump seems to think the greatest threats are Muslims and immigrants, and Clinton seems to think it is Trump. But I want to propose another possibility, one I call the silent killer. Congress. It is a broken Legislative Branch and it has been eating away at our national welfare for decades with no signs of getting better.
While there are a plethora of data points demonstrating Congress’ dysfunction, I think the three best are the quality of legislation, the lack of new Constitutional Amendments, and the broken budget process. So let’s begin at the beginning:
Congress and Lawmaking
Article I of the Constitution established the Legislative branch to, among other ancillary responsibilities, legislate. That means create laws, which is why we call our Senators and Congressman Lawmakers. However, this is where the breakdown occurs.
To create laws in a multi-party system lawmakers must compromise with the members of another party. And for the better part of two hundred years, members of our legislature did just that, they compromised with one another; and through their compromise was born some genuinely groundbreaking and revolutionary law (e.g. The Social Security Act of 1935, Sherman Antitrust Act 1890, The Civil Rights Act of 1964). And while the recent Congresses have managed to pass some legislation, it is now happens almost exclusively through legislative maneuvering and political infighting; which, we the voters see little of other than the divisive rhetoric broadcast 24/7 on the TV and internet.
Another prime example of Congress’ recent stagnation is in Constitutional Amendments. In the 240 years Congress has passed 27 Amendments. Excluding the first 10 Amendments, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, we have 17 Amendments over 200 years. That is roughly one Amendment every 11.7 years. However, the last two Amendments (26th in 1971 and the 27th in 1992) have slowed to about twenty years apart. And it has been almost a quarter century since the Constitution was last changed.
Since nothing about the Country or the world at large has eased the need to update Constitution, we see that the system through which we advance our Government is itself broken. And because the legislature cannot perform its most basic functions, we are left with a stagnant Government languishing in a rapidly evolving world. Thus, when I make that claim that Congress’ dysfunction is the greatest threat to our nation, I do so because if our Government does not evolve as the founding fathers intended, through pragmatic lawmaking and Constitutional revisions, we will quickly get left behind.
Each year Congress is charged with passing a budget comprised of twelve separate bills. Congress only managed to do so four times between 1977 and 2012; and since 2012 the Federal Government has been shut down for more than two weeks in 2013 because of Congressional belligerence on spending. By the way, Poltifact estimated that shutdown alone cost the economy between 16 and 24 billion dollars. What more can be said?
Now that we have covered the bad news, let’s discuss the good news. Here are there fundamental fixes Congress must make to get the Legislative branch working again.
Get Rid of Gerrymandering
Gerrymandering is the colloquial term for the practice of re-drawing of Congressional districts for political gain; and it derives its name from a nineteenth century Government of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry who, not kidding, drew a district around Boston that resembled a salamander. A few hundred years later, the practice of Gerrymandering has turned the Congressional district map into a piece of modern art so avant-garde that Kandinsky would be proud.
And, while districts come in every shape and size, what they almost never reflect is the actual population of an urban area. Rather, specific communities within a larger population are surgically included or excluded to ensure a party keeps control of the district. The practice is now accepted as an inherent but unfortunate part of our system, remaining a blatant example of politicians undermining the basic principles of American governance and republican representation. So, I argue, do away with it!
Reform Campaign Finance
In 2010 the Supreme Court Case of Citizens United allowed so called dark money to pour into campaigns. Since the ruling, spending on Congressional races has skyrocketed, and there is no way track who or where the money is coming from. In essence, the ruling gives wealthy individuals a bigger say in the electoral process and violates the principle of one person, one vote. So do away with Citizens United and reform the campaign finance rules.
Impose Congressional Term limits
While the President can serve only two four year terms, members of Congress face no such prohibitions. When the Constitution was written Gerrymandering, Citizens United, and the 24 hour news cycle did not exist. According, politicians faced a genuine threat of getting voted out of office. However, today this rarely happens. In fact, Congress has about a 95% incumbency rate. Thus, without fear of getting voted out elected officials are freed from the primary internal control placed on them by the drafters of the Constitution. There are plenty of intelligent, motivated people in every district with fresh ideas who deserve a shot at; let’s give it to them.
I know what you are thinking This is impossible, Congress would never vote for any of it. And you are right; but that is my point. We have reached a place in which it is inconceivable that Congress would pass substantive laws to make the Legislative branch work again, especially not when their jobs security or campaign funds are at issue.
I’m not saying any of this would be easy; I am saying that it is necessary. And if we hope to continue our place as a global SUPERPOWER we have to take constructive steps to reform the legislative branch now. So tell your members of Congress to make these changes immediately or vote for someone who will!
Alexander S. Balkin is an attorney living and working in San Diego California. He is a former analyst at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Chief Financial Officers Council Finance Fellow. His hobbies include books, books, and more books with equal amounts of golf. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the position of any government agency.