Politics

Even Without Trump, Congress Would Be a Dysfunctional Disaster

I asked an expert how bad things really were, and whether we could ever fix the system.
January 25, 2018, 7:51pm
Lawmakers leave Congress after ending a government shutdown on January 22. Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty

Last week, the federal government shut down after Congress couldn’t agree to protect young people brought to the country illegally as children. It opened back up on Monday, but only because Democrats and Republicans kicked the can down the road—it might close again after February 8, when the current spending agreement runs out. The good news is that Congress finally reauthorized funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which it had been ignoring for months. The bad news is that thanks to congressional dithering and dysfunction, roughly 800,000 undocumented people still don’t know if they’re about to face possible deportation.

It was the latest reminder of just how spectacularly dysfunctional American politics has become.

Major pieces of legislation like last year’s tax bill are rushed through the House and Senate and pass on strictly partisan lines. Priorities nearly everyone agrees on, from infrastructure to the opioid crisis, go unaddressed. The polls show that nearly everyone hates Congress, yet more than 80 percent of incumbents win reelection, most of them easily. Every cycle, elections get more expensive, and “dark money”—donations whose source is hidden—becomes more common. Pushed along by Facebook and other social media sites, the press has been getting more fractured and more partisan, and people are less and less likely to trust outlets that aren’t telling them what they want to hear. The country is getting angrier and less sane. Every month, the system is strained a little bit more, and the cracks become more obvious.

It’s a hell of a thing to confront all of these problems at once, but that’s what John Raidt did in a wide-ranging report for the centrist think tank the Atlantic Council. Called Whither America, it identifies some of the culprits responsible for the country’s dire state—including the “mercenary election industry,” “cultural degradation,” and “the slanted and self-serving media”—before suggesting reforms. These include efforts to make it easier to vote and to stop gerrymandering, rules to increase transparency in campaign financing, greater regulation of the media to make sure people know what is “news” and what is not, education campaigns to make citizens better citizens, and training courses to make elected officials better at being elected officials. It’s a big, ambitious agenda informed by Raidt’s two decades of experience in politics, including stints as John McCain’s legislative director and a staffer on the 9/11 Commission.

Last month, I called him up to ask how all of that would work.

VICE: How would you describe your report in a sentence or two?
John Raidt: I think what I would say is that the problems we’re facing in politics and government are systemic, not circumstantial. The current chaotic state of American politics and government is not the cause of our problems; it’s really the product. What I find most dangerous for our democracy is what I call the casualty of virtues. If we lose those—like trust, truth, inclusion, balance, substance, respect, and duty—that really eats at the foundation of democracy. From that standpoint, it’s a long-term national challenge.

What inspired you to tackle this topic now?
I actually conceived this six or seven years ago. One thing that I think it’s really important to state is that I’m not saying partisan rancor and stalemate are some new revelation, they’re of course as old as American politics. What I have found happening over a number of years is one, that crushing magnitude, two, they are being systematized—and, of course, the monumental vulnerability they create for the country in very perilous times.

When I first started working in Congress as a staffer, by and large there were continuing resolutions from time to time, but the institution passed its appropriations bills and passed most of its authorization bills and did its work. It wasn’t always pretty, it wasn’t always polite, democracy probably wasn’t meant to be—but the work got done.

What is the era that we should be thinking about as the best, most productive era of Congress?
There have been times where there were incredibly stalemated congresses, back during the first couple years of the Kennedy administration, during the civil rights era. But at least post–World War II, the work by and large got done. [Congress] saw it as their duty to pass these bills and make the decisions. And that has just gone out the door. Now you’ll get a [Department of Defense] authorization bill, in a good year you’ll get [continuing resolutions] to carry forward funding. We just kind of lurch from crisis to crisis instead of having the regular order of hearings, votes in committee.

In your report, you apportion blame in a bipartisan way. Some people who write about these trends have been much more aggressive about blaming Republicans for them. What’s your perspective on that?
One could have a very spirited argument about which side is more to blame, but that’s part of the problem. Both sides are to blame, and frankly, one of the biggest problems is the fact that the parties are in some ways bedfellows. They need their disputes—that’s what makes the system run. I’m not saying there aren’t legitimate philosophical disputes, certainly there are, but a lot of them tend to get exaggerated and they need the foil of one another to do their fundraising. Vote for me because the other guy is evil, and I’m good. Neither party has a monopoly on those tactics.

It is indisputable that some Republicans at the state level have passed laws that make it harder for certain people to vote. How do you change the incentives that surround voting laws?
The example I give is that when every electoral vote in California goes to Democrats, and every electoral vote in Texas goes to Republicans, there is no incentive for a Democrat to go to Texas and make their case or a Republican to go to California to make their case. And guess what would happen if they had to? They’d have to take into account a broader swathe of the public, and that’s good for centrism and good for democracy. While I’m on that, some might say, So what your prescription is that the mushy middle is the answer for everything. No, it’s not. What I’m advocating for is a system that grows leaders, not electioneers and partisans. Part of leadership is being able to stand up and make an argument even if someone doesn’t agree with it, and explaining why it’s the right course of action and winning people over.



I’d call a lot of your reform proposals educational—training for congresspeople, teaching people how to read the news. How do you build up institutions that people from both parties will trust?
We taught people not to litter. That used to be norm: People would throw garbage out the window as they drove down the freeway. Society took it upon itself to socialize people that that’s not good citizens behavior. We’ve done much, much better. The anti-smoking campaign had a big effect. I hold up sexual harassment—it’s been around forever, but society is putting its foot down and saying it’s not acceptable anymore.

Well, I mean, Roy Moore almost won an election to the Senate.
You’re right. But by any fair assessment society is much more sensitive and educated. My guess is we’re going to see a lot less of this going forward. There are examples where civic education campaigns have succeeded, and we just have to do it.

If I could bring up a counterexample, there’s a tendency among both parties to reject assessments that they disagree with, even when those assessments are nonpartisan. Republicans have attacked the Congressional Budget Office, and Democrats have taken issue with studies that cite high costs for single-payer healthcare. How do you combat that kind of partisanship?
Part of the problem is the time and the effort for bona fide education for members of Congress and the public just doesn’t exist. Republicans, for very good reason, have problems with Obamacare. And they had six or seven years to come up with an alternative and show the country why it was better. At the last minute, they came up with something that was thrown together. With all cable channels and the internet, there’s a lot of noise but there’s almost an unseriousness to the way we go about identifying national problems.

If Congress debated these issues in the way you want, i.e. without worrying about the political consequences and just thinking about the process, I think at some point in that debate there’d be an inevitable moment when one party would say, Hey, if we do this, I’ll be disadvantaged. Then they’d dig in and oppose those reforms. How do you overcome that kind of dynamic?
This is where civic engagement begins. Good government is a civil right, and we need a movement. The thing about democracy is people get what they ultimately demand and deserve. The parties may chafe and grind and obstruct because of what meets their parochial interests, but if the public is demanding very sensible reforms, in a democracy that’s hard to resist.

So convincing the public that something needs to change is the first step.
Yeah. And I think the problem is that as problems metastasize, people will get more disgusted with the way politics operate. It’s very easy to point at politicians and government, bashing them has been around as long as the republic, but at some point we the people have to look at ourselves and our role in this. If we’re pandered to it’s because we allow ourselves to be pandered to.

Last thing: In 50 years, do you think that the US system will be the same as it is today, broadly speaking?
No. It’s going to be significantly different, because it has to be.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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