We are living in a time where Congress is getting less and less done, and gridlock has a firm headlock on Washington. At the same time people have lost their homes, their savings, their jobs, and often, their hope. Bottom line: our politics is getting in the way of policy. Our elected leaders don't seem to recognize the moment we're living in. And the consequences are real, and serious.
Some of this is not surprising. American government is inefficient by design. Whatever the president does, he usually has to convince Congress to cooperate. On Capitol Hill, if the House acts, the Senate still has to concur. The Senate itself is built to be particularly slow, with long terms for senators and filibusters and other procedural maneuvers that are designed to make things go slowly. Legend has it that George Washington told Thomas Jefferson that he supported the creation of the Senate, to "cool" House legislation, just as a saucer can cool hot tea. And if the president and Congress make progress, then there's always the court system to keep checks on their excesses. That's all to say that our system is not designed to work quickly or expeditiously. Checks and balances take time; we gain stability at the expense of speed and efficiency.
But nowadays, things in Washington are way beyond inefficient. We are in a place where politics is being placed above policy -- and that's a problem. In other words, our elected officials are not living up to their obligation to put the needs of the people and the country above all else. While there are serious political and philosophical debates to be had over the role of government these days, we are hardly hearing much about that.
No wonder congressional approval ratings are hovering around the single-digit level.
And ultimately, this has dangerous consequences. We are just now coming out of the worst economic downturn in 75 years. Our economy, while recovering, is still shaky. People still worry about their jobs. Many are unemployed. Many others are underemployed, or worried about whether their jobs are going to be there tomorrow. Many no longer have their life savings. Foreclosure signs still litter our neighborhood homes. And yet Congress has hardly made progress on things that really matter, for people who are feeling the effects.
There's not really a good time for Washington to be at a political stalemate, but this is definitely a bad time. As the people of America are hurting, they want -- and need -- action. Instead they get rhetoric and partisanship.
I have been interviewing a large number of U.S. Senators for a project I'm working on, and many of them have told me that they see politics winning over policy, obstruction over the real needs of real people. And some worry, in discussing the harsh realities of daily life for so many Americans, that inaction could ultimately destabilize the country. As so many people live in hard times and demand action, they don't see their elected officials taking concrete steps to resolve their pressing problems. That is a recipe for disaster. The people need help. But they feel they aren't getting it. They don't see the leadership they want to enable us to pull ourselves up and out of the challenges we face, together.
So congressional approval ratings are low, and more importantly, the American people feel even more distressed, more disenfranchised, more worried. The Tea Party and the "Occupy" movements reflect that sentiment. Their full-throated protests allow the people to vent their frustration, as a safety valve. But the country is at a boiling point, and the inaction in Washington is pushing the water over the top. As the people suffer, the heat rises, and the solutions aren't yet clear. But the damage is.
Our government in Washington isn't going away. But the American people can hardly wait for the politicians to act decisively.
Mark C. Alexander, professor of law at Seton Hall University School of Law, was Policy Director and Senior Advisor to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. He is working on a book about race, politics and generational change in America.