Leading Congress is like herding cats. As we move from gridlock to impasse to legislative roadblock in Washington, we’re all wondering if yellow dogs wouldn’t better serve us than our current field of public servants. What is it about our times that government has ceased to work?
Congress is an institution of 535 people who represent 435 districts and 100 statewide constituencies. Most of these people are up for reelection in 2014. Two-thirds of the Senate is not. And speaking of senators, most of them see a future president of the United States in the mirror each morning, and some very noisy ones are preparing the political soil for a 2016 run.
And that’s the way it’s designed to work.
There is no provision in the Constitution for political parties, but they certainly help organize the stew of popular passions, opinions, and interests, and the political ambitions that boil at the east end of Pennsylvania Ave. “Stew” is a deceptively appetizing word to describe our legislative branch of government. But our elected representatives reflect us, the people who elected them. And that suited rabble is what self-government looks like in an economically, philosophically, morally, and spiritually diverse and divided nation.
But there is hope for concerted government action, for movement toward a consensus on the common good and the next step for the nation, and the Constitution provides for it.
The presidency is a unifying office—a single person, a single decision-maker with a single public voice and public face who represents the entire nation. He has a special role in bringing Congress to consensus over major legislation through negotiation, personal relationships, and rhetorical appeals to the people who elected them. That is how Ronald Reagan got a Democratic House to pass his historic 1981 tax cut.
But this quality of executive leadership is something in which President Barack Obama had no experience before coming to office and in which he has shown no interest since his 2009 inauguration. He has been a silent stranger to most of his party in Congress, and it was 18 months before he ever picked up the phone to talk with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
This is a president who began his presidency rebuffing a modest opposition suggestion, saying, “Elections have consequences, and at the end of the day, I won.”
This is a president who organized a televised bipartisan forum with congressional leaders on healthcare reform, but in the end conceded nothing. Nothing.
This is a president whose defining legislative accomplishment has been the historic and transformative Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare,” a law for which he did not manage to get a single Republican vote. Is it any wonder there is a partisan standoff over it now?
Last week, the president called congressional leaders together at the White House to address the current standoff over the conditions for continuing to fund the government, only to tell them that there would be no discussion.
In a system of separated powers, when legislators in the opposite party stake out a negotiating position and the president can see only putting a gun to his head and holding “the economy hostage,” one has to wonder if he understands the Constitution he swore to uphold and the democratic principles it embodies.
The president confuses campaigning with governing. A dysfunctional Congress is always a failure of presidential leadership. Behold headless popular government.