Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Is Our Government Broken?
October 21, 2011
by Napp Nazworth
After our government neared default on promised payments last August, many were asking “is our government broken?” A CNN/ORC poll recently found that trust in government hit a new low. Only 15 percent of respondents said they trust the government to do what is right.
Conservative columnist George Will took a different view on ABC's “This Week” recently when he argued that our government is working fine. When Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who has been urging Congress to “solve the problem,” was told of Will's remarks, he replied, “Is he out of his mind? Is he in a coma?”
To understand whether something is broken, however, one must first understand its purpose. If I were to point at a car and say, “it's broken, it won't fly,” you might respond, “but it wasn't designed to fly.” Likewise, one must understand what our government was designed to do before declaring it “broken.”
Every democratic government has two primary functions—policy and representation. They must both create public policy and represent citizens.
These two functions are often in tension with each other. The better our government is at representing the diverse interests in our society, the more difficult it is to craft public policy. It's the “too many cooks in the kitchen” phenomenon. When public policy tries to account for many voices, the end result rarely seems impressive. This is why the words “this is not a perfect bill” flow from the lips of our politicians with ease.
Politicians are rarely satisfied with the final version of legislation because our legislative process was not designed to satisfy a single politician. Our legislative process was designed to create policies that would be “good enough” for at least a simple majority, more often a super majority.
Between the two functions of a democratic government, the designers of our government had a clear preference. They considered the representation function more important than the policy function, and their design reflects that preference. Doing nothing was intended to be the default position of our government in most policy areas. Our Founders preferred a government that would change slowly and deliberately, taking into account the many interests represented in society.
When our government is slow to respond, George Will is correct, it is working as intended. Our government is not slow because it is unresponsive, but because it is responsive. Responding to the will of many is certainly more difficult than responding to the will of few and will take more time.
We are in a period, though, when we should be asking whether our Founders preferences should be our preferences. The Founders realized that the design of our government may need to be changed over time. This is why they added Article V to the Constitution—the amendment process. The Constitution was written by men, not handed down from atop Mount Sinai, so there is nothing sacrilegious in suggesting modifications.
We have enormous challenges ahead of us. The nation has almost $116 trillion in unfunded liabilities, an unwieldy tax code, and a crumbling infrastructure. With the next election about a year away, President Obama and members of Congress have mostly given up on tackling these issues.
Now is a good time to ask: should we make changes to our government that would enable it to more easily perform its policy functions at the possible expense of its representation function? These changes could include doing away with midterm elections and placing all members of Congress and the president on the same four-year term.
The representation function would not be lost with these changes, but could be diminished. The electorate would have to wait four years instead of two to pass judgment on their government. The change would also mean, however, that Congress could spend three years governing and one year campaigning, instead of one year of governing before worrying about the next election.
Our government is functioning according to its design. Rather than ask, “is our government broken?,” let us ask, “should we change the design of our government?”
“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”