If It’s Broken, Fix It

By Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

Dys·func·tional [dis-´fəŋ(k)-shə-nəl]–adjective : (1) relating badly; (2) not performing as expected; (3) affected by disease or impairment. Three definitions: take your pick. Each one of them suits today’s United States Senate.

It is not what the founding fathers had in mind when they struck the “Connecticut Compromise” at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, establishing the Senate as an upper chamber with equal representation from each state and six-year terms, so that its members could act as a check on the dangers of unbridled democracy the founders expected from the nascent “people’s” House of Representatives.

They wanted senators to be insulated from public opinion and feel empowered to take the long view. They wanted senators–who weren’t even directly elected until passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913–to act as a brake on pell-mell legislative gambits House members might pursue to achieve electoral success every two years. They wanted the Senate to be a speed bump. They never envisioned it would become a roadblock.

The 1787 Convention also rejected the British system of parliamentary government in which the majority party’s leader is the prime minister. Instead, led by James Madison, the Convention adopted a presidential system with an independent executive and a system of checks and balances. Their decision served our nation well for more than two centuries. But it is in danger of lapsing into irrelevance.

President Obama ran on a platform of bipartisanship and change, which is fine if both political parties buy into the concepts and if governing structures can facilitate the goals. It’s a prescription for failure when members of Congress dig in their ideological heels and focus on posturing for the next two-year election cycle rather than achieving substantive legislative results. It’s a prescription for failure when the Senate cannot act unless 60 percent of its members agree it should.

Blame Obama for overreaching if you want. Blame him for promoting too much big government if that’s your judgment. Blame him for lack of engagement and leadership if you see it that way. But don’t blame him for what has become a de facto parliamentary system in which political parties refuse to collaborate for fear of electoral retribution from their staunchly ideological bases. Don’t blame him for a Congress in which the House of Representatives looks more like the House of Commons and the Senate, the House of Lords, each with a governing party and a loyal opposition.

At least in the British system, new elections are held when a government loses a parliamentary vote of confidence. Here, we’re stuck with senatorial gridlock until the public decides to throw out all the incumbents–or at least a third of them every two years. And that outcome is pretty unlikely.

This year, the wheels of government could become completely mired in the ooze of partisanship, once the Democrats pass health care legislation using the arcane senatorial reconciliation procedure. And if the Senate does become bog bound, most spending bills once again will be on hold until the next calendar year.

Members of Congress know full well that “continuing resolutions” hurt many programs that depend on federal funds, science among them, but election exigencies always trump prudent policies. And with Democratic control of both houses of Congress possibly vulnerable to a Republican takeover, the 2010 election looms larger than most. And the larger it looms, the more likely the legislative engine will seize up.

That the system is broken there is no doubt. The public knows it, and members of Congress know it. But fixing it is not so easy. Still here are a few ideas–in brief.

First, make congressional districts more competitive by letting the nonpartisan commissions decide on redistricting rather than politicians in state legislatures and state houses who focus on creating safe districts. Then candidates will have to appeal to voters of all political persuasions, not just their bases.

Second, take money out of campaigning. One big difference between the Congress of today and the Congress of fifty years ago is that members of the two parties today don’t have time for after-work socializing. They spend every non-working hour raising money for the next election. Finding time to establish friendships across the aisle is as important as arguing on the floor.

True, the Supreme Court has struck down most campaign financing laws on First Amendment grounds. But bushels of campaign money are spent on TV advertising. And there is nothing to stop Congress from mandating that TV stations make free political advertising time available in return for receiving their licenses. Congress can also force cable operators to provide free time in return for keeping their unregulated monopoly status.

Finally, the Senate could return to the days when a filibuster was more than a threat to debate. It used to mean that senators actually had to be on the floor debating. And it used to mean that all senators had to be available for quorum calls at any time of day or night. But of course, if senators had to do that now, they couldn’t be out raising campaign cash at morning and evening fundraisers. Whoever shortened 1 Timothy 6:10 to, “Money is the root of all evil,” had it right, at least in the political arena.

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Editor: Alan Chodos

April 2010 (Volume 19, Number 4)

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Articles in this Issue
Report Presents Strategies for Nuclear Arsenal Downsizing
Panel Prepares to Weigh APS Members’ Input on Climate Change Commentary
Closing In on Dark Matter and High-Energy Cosmic Rays
Visa Problem Keeps Iranian Physicist from Attending March Meeting
Art Enhances Physics Learning
New Experiments to Probe the Intensity Frontier
Teacher Preparation Conference Focuses on Diversity
Task Force Calls Physics Teacher Preparation Massively Inadequate
Letters to the Editor
The Back Page
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
The Education Corner
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
Inside the Beltway