“Inaction” is not “malfunction”


There’s bipartisan agreement that America’s political system is broken. And many who differ on policy questions think there’s a need to fix American politics. Two popular favorites involve taking politics out of the redistricting process in the hope that it will increase the number of contested general election races and changing how we finance campaigns to reduce the influence of those who write big checks.

I remain a part of the dissenting minority who argue that our system isn’t broken. Action on a number of thorny issues — ranging from immigration to education reform — is stymied because of big disagreements on what should be done. Our experience with the Affordable Care Act illustrates the peril of making big changes in the absence of substantial majority support.

In many areas, government inaction merely reflects our inability to agree on what should be done.

I also remain a centrist who thinks it would be a good idea if we had more voters selecting candidates who were more interested in meeting in the middle to do deals than in ideological purity. But, there’s no reason to believe that proposed reforms would get us there and some proposals — like open primaries and the elimination of superdelegates — would likely enhance the disruptive clout of those sunshine soldiers who lack the staying power to make real changes.

In the redistricting areas, several interesting reforms are already underway ranging from the California plan, where the two biggest vote getters in the primary (even if they are from the same party) face each other in the general election to reliance in six states on “nonpartisan” redistricting agencies.

That means the California race to succeed Sen. Barbara Boxer is between two Democrats. But, in Washington, which has a similar top-two law, incumbent Democrat Patty Murray faced a Republican challenger.

These efforts may be undermined by shifting demographic patterns where people who vote alike increasingly live in the same communities. The number of competitive Congressional districts has declined not solely because of reprehensible and artful gerrymandering, but because voters have moved to be nearer people who agree with them.

Jimmy Carter won election as President in 1976 with a slim popular majority, but only about a quarter of voters lived in “landslide” counties where he won or lost by at least 20 points. By the time of George Bush’s reelection in 2004, nearly half of voters lived in such districts and there’s every reason to believe that number has risen since.

Few argue that this political balkanization by zip code is a good thing. Understanding the other side and the wisdom of compromise is tough for people who don’t have social relationships that cross that gap. But, it is even more difficult to deny that this is happening and it is hard to see why or how taking the politics out of redistricting will reverse that trend.

The case for changing the way money flows in politics is equally murky. One lesson of Donald Trump’s nomination is a reminder that the candidate with the most cash doesn’t necessarily win and often loses big. The endless arguments of reformers who say that money is corrupting politics simply doesn’t resonate with the voters. No Presidential candidate has accepted Federal financing since Barack Obama rejected it in 2008 and there’s been no visible blowback.

And the lack of Federal subsidies for political conventions, caused by a bipartisan decision to shift the money to the NIH for pediatric research, didn’t darken this year’s sessions where the balloon drop density was undiminished.

Our government has difficulty enacting new policies for several reasons proposed reforms simply don’t address. One is that we disagree about what ought to be done. That’s partially caused by a decline in conversations with people of differing political views, but there’s no groundswell of support for potluck dinners to reverse that. Most have forgotten the relevant Tom Lehrer lyric — “It’s fun to fraternize with people you despise.”

Another is the lack of plausible policy directions. We’ve proven that sending nearly everyone to college, a bipartisan mid-90s belief, won’t solve our economic problems, but there’s no alternative strategy at hand that seems possible or plausible.

The result is bipartisan frustration.

Today’s political gridlock is a symptom, not the disease. And casting about for a change in the rules that will yield painless, fast relief is a diversion, an infusion of political empty calories that will only briefly take the edge off our hunger.


For 16 years, Jim Jaffe worked for House Democrats who served on the Ways and Means Committee, apprenticing with Representatives Green, Gibbons and Gephardt before working for Chairman Dan Rostenkowski.

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