Columnists > Voices

Dysfunctional Hill

Does the U.S. Congress work any better than the Iraqi Parliament?

Issue: "He's in," Sept. 22, 2007

For Americans to talk so disdainfully about a "dysfunctional" government in Iraq is just a little on the cocky side.

The term was already common before early September, when a Government Accountability Office report said Iraq's Maliki administration had failed to meet 11 out of 18 benchmarks. Now it is part of everybody's vocabulary when referring to the Iraqi government.

So, we hear regularly of a government in Baghdad paralyzed by partisan ideology and strife. Sound a little familiar? Substitute the U.S. Congress for the Iraqi Parliament and substitute Republicans and Democrats for Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, and things might not look all that different. Granted, we aren't running around blowing each other up with car bombs-but when it comes to productive legislation, can you honestly point to anything memorable coming out of Washington in the last two or three years?

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"Reconciliation and unity" are laudable goals in and for Iraq, to be sure. But to the extent they seem elusive and hard to come by there, maybe we should reflect on the deep chasms that right now divide so many Americans. What recent developments can you point to here in America that even have the feel of "reconciliation and unity"?

Where, to be more specific, is the American leader, from any wing of any party, who has challenged us with a "come-now-let-us-reason-together" sort of approach? Isn't it true that we look more like the Iraqi factions than like a civilized entity trying to find a consensus?

So why, I ask, are we so forgiving of our own fragmented leadership in Washington while at the same time holding the fragile new Iraqi government to such an exacting standard?

This is not, let me make clear, just another "blame-America-first" screed or a "moral-equivalence" argument, claiming that the United States is no better-and probably a good deal worse-than other nations on earth, and that therefore we have forfeited the right to have opinions about what other nations do. I am profoundly thankful for America. I am thankful for its overall record for freedom, and for the overall way it has historically used its power and its influence.

I am not thankful for the current U.S. Congress-and it is in that narrow sense that I raise questions about our casual dismissal of the government in Iraq. How do we ask the beleaguered Iraqis to do what we find impossible for ourselves? Why do we so easily throw the "dysfunctional" label at their government when it is so increasingly clear that our own Congress may deserve it even more?

How do you measure the work of Congress? Just remember this little outline: Tax, spend, and defend.

Or a little more specifically, try this: Tax-a little; spend-less; and defend-a lot.

There is, of course, one other all-important assignment while doing those three things: Tell us the truth about what you're doing!

On all four assignments, the inclinations of the current Congress are headed in the wrong direction. The actual record is so muddled that it's hard to discern anything like a thoughtful set of policies. The pattern, though, seems to be: No restraints, except to handcuff the president on national defense.

Overall, it's worth noting, Congress' inclinations are wrong not just in principle-but also pragmatically. An early September Gallup poll suggested public approval for the current Congress had fallen to 18 percent, only half the admittedly miserable rating President Bush has been struggling under for the last year or so. Do the Iraqi people rate their government that unhappily? Failing 11 out of 18 benchmarks doesn't sound so great. But who in Washington can talk about meeting seven out of 18?

So who's dysfunctional? When Jesus told His followers not to worry about the speck in someone else's eye until they had taken care of the log in their own, maybe He had a logjam on Capitol Hill in mind.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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