From Legislator to Warrior

Anton Börner, Chief of the German Foreign Trade Association, said on Thursday after the congressional deadlock over the U.S. budget was resolved, that he couldn’t believe 40 American congressional representatives could hold the entire world hostage. “I hope we don’t go through the same theatrics again in January,” Börner said, adding that such a spectacle was unworthy of the world’s largest economy.

Whichever Republican representatives came up with the idea of making a routine procedural vote on the new budget and another on raising the debt limit contingent upon getting rid of the Obamacare they so detest, really made the United States the laughingstock of the world and caused economic damage to their own country, which, according to estimates, amounted to $24 billion.

That these elected tea party people are even possible is the fault of the political system. It no longer has much to do with the right to participate in organizing one of the world’s oldest democracies; it is increasingly proving to be a sign of dysfunction.

The U.S. Congress is incapable of reform in a double sense: It is neither able to take the necessary steps to allow the United States to enter the 21st century ecologically, economically or with a proper infrastructure, nor does it want to adapt its work methods to meet modern demands.

The system of checks and balances intended to steer the various congressional groups toward constructive compromise has ended up causing only paralysis.

The reasons for that are manifold. On the federal level, there is no proportional representation. The strength of the parties in the 100-member Senate and the 435-member House of Representatives is determined by the sum of directly elected individuals; thus, the parties have little to no influence on the process, while outside financial donors have all the more control.

Since the president is directly elected, he often governs without a majority in one or sometimes even both houses of Congress. And even if his party is in the majority, he is not assured that his ideas are necessarily shared by all members. There is no method by which to enforce party discipline; even the device of a vote of no confidence is unavailable to him.

In addition, the representatives in the lower house stand for election every two years. Such a short election cycle ensures that representatives are in a near-permanent state of campaigning. They remain as little as humanly possible in Washington and must spend their time raising the money necessary for the next election.

It used to be that representatives moved to the city of Washington, D.C. and would often meet with their colleagues from the other party for an evening out. Today, that’s unimaginable. They now spend the work week in conferences or plenary sessions with lobbyists, departing the city as quickly as possible. Trust and legislative camaraderie are impossible under such conditions.

At War with Their Own Party Members

Redrawing the electoral district boundaries, done by state governors after every census, is always done to the advantage of the party majorities in those districts, so-called gerrymandering. That closes the circle: The actual battle is not fought against the opposing party’s political opponent. The real threat to re-election lies in the primary elections in one’s own party.

Republican candidates open to compromise with the other party faced no greater peril in the last election than to be challenged by a well-financed tea party opponent ready to accuse them of betraying Republican ideology. The result was that moderates willing to work with the opposing party have all but disappeared from the halls of Congress.

Mickey Edwards, a Republican representative who served between 1977 and 1993, says that today’s Republicans no longer feel like lawmakers — their actual function in Congress — but rather foot soldiers for Republican causes. Ever since Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “conservative revolution,” that has meant defeating Democrats and liberals wherever they are encountered.

In Congress, that means polarization and the use of any and all minority tactics to blockade, such as the famous Senate “filibuster” which requires a 60-vote majority to pass any bill — or just close off discussion and bring bills to a vote.

The bottom line for today: Anyone who has 41 votes has a minority with the power to stop the majority from enacting laws. Where the filibuster was used only sparingly in the past, it has become the commonplace rule today.

The reality of this is that practically anyone can prevent laws from being passed, while almost no one can pass them. Meaningful reforms have always been difficult to achieve in the United States. But now, routine business has become nearly impossible to conduct. Foreign Trade Association Chief Börner is correct: It is a spectacle unworthy of the United States. Suddenly, the sometimes frustrating search for stable majorities in German politics looks increasingly attractive in contrast.

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