Democracy is Hard

As we continue to play the “stupid or nefarious” game to sort through the Trump Administration’s missteps – which is to say, everything it does – let’s not lose sight of the other two branches of our increasingly dysfunctional government.

Neal Gorsuch was seated last week as the ninth member of the U.S. Supreme Court.  It remains to be seen what kind of a jurist he will be, but his path to that seat is to me the most glaring example so far of the Republican leadership’s cynical and instrumentalist hypocrisy.  I can’t imagine the country’s trust in the highest Court in the land remains as it was the day before Justice Scalia died.

So the Executive Branch is either stupid or nefarious.  The Judicial Branch’s highest office has been polluted by partisan and jaded self-interest. Let’s take a look behind Door Number Three:  the Legislative Branch, i.e. the United States Congress.

Republican leadership in the House is Speaker Paul Ryan; the Senate is run by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.  Minority leaders of the House and Senate are Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer.  As we know, Paul Ryan led his party to total and humiliating defeat of the bill to “repeal and replace” Obamacare; and now concedes that the long-promised Republican Tax Reform is likely to see the same fate. congress/  and

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Mitch McConnell couldn’t rally enough votes in his own party to confirm Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary; resulting in an unprecedented tie breaking vote by the Vice President in order to get her confirmed. And of course more recently, McConnell had to “tear up the Senate’s own rules” on Supreme Court confirmations in order to get Gorsuch confirmed without any Democratic support.

I’m confused.  Don’t the Republicans control both the House and the Senate? Why yes, yes they do:  in the House, the Republicans hold 239 seats to the Democrats’ 194; while in the Senate Republicans have 51 seats to the Democrats’ 46 (plus two Independents who generally caucus with the Democrats).  And didn’t the House vote over 50 times during the Obama Administration to repeal Obamacare? Yes.

So . . . what’s going on?

We know now about the Republican plot to obstruct President Obama before he even took office.  As reported by Mike Grunwald in Time back in 2012, there were “secret meetings led by House GOP whip Eric Cantor (in December 2008) and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (in early January 2009) in which they laid out their daring (though cynical and political) no-honeymoon strategy of all-out resistance to a popular President-elect during an economic emergency. “If he was for it,” former Ohio Senator George Voinovich explained, “we had to be against it.”

And indeed, the 112th Congress — which was sworn in in January, 2011 — was the least productive in our nation’s history.  In fact, the 80th Congress, which Harry Truman dubbed the “do-nothing congress” in 1948, actually passed more than 900 bills during its two years in office.  The 112th, on the other hand, managed to enact only 283 laws.  The 113th Congress — sworn in in January, 2013 — wasn’t quite as unproductive as its predecessor.    It eked out a whopping 296 bills, more than 50 of which named post offices and other federal buildings.  Things don’t get much better in the 114th Congress — the one sworn in in January, 2015.  Legislators in those years managed to enact only 329 laws.

The folks who rode into Washington in 2012 and 2014 and 2016 did so on Tea-Party infused waves of anti-government/anti-Obama energy.  Much of that energy centered on the idea that seasoned, well-trained politicians could not effectively govern the American people.  And the American electorate bought it. Being an “outsider” — i.e. someone who had little or no experience in Washington — became the most important criteria for one seeking public office.  And having “inside the beltway” experience was seen as a major detriment.

So now Congress is filled with these so-called “outsiders” — elected officials who have no experience actually governing.  And now that they are in a position to govern – rather than just to say “no” to those who really want to govern – they have no clue how to make anything happen.

As we keep hearing, policy-making is complicated.  Health care is complicated.  The Tax Code is complicated. Korea is complicated.  It turns out that governing takes work, and governing in a Democracy even more so.

On the Rachel Maddow show the other night, Elizabeth Warren warned that “we can’t make Democracy a once every four year horse race . . . It can’t be a spectator sport.” To which Rachel replied, “you’re talking about Democracy being about policy not about candidates.  You’re talking about moving people already in office.”

Right.  Democracy is not something we stand on the sidelines for.  We need people in our Democracy who want to work hard, who care about their communities and their country; who work for their constituents more than their donors.

So how are we going to build our new, healthy Democracy? Some of us will run for office.  Others will teach our future leaders about civic engagement. The bottom line Warren says, is that “We gotta talk about our own values, what we get up in the morning for and why we fight all day long. . . We have to throw in with each other.  This is our test.  What kind of a people are we and what kind of country are we going to build?”