Will We Get the Government We Want Today?

By

French philosopher Joseph de Maistre once wrote, "Every country has the government it deserves." As Americans go to the polls today, we would do well to pause at this moment in our nation's political life and consider just what kind of government it is that we want.

I particularly will be interested to see what kind of Congress emerges in January, regardless of which party wins which chamber. Will voters have delivered any overpowering message that will determine the answer to that question?

De Maistre's observation is as true today as when he made it in 1811. It is not unusual for those working to increase voter attention and turnout to use the quote as a guilt club to drive citizens to the polls ("You can't complain about the government we have if you don't bother to vote!").

But that argument only goes so far. Even people who do their civic duty and vote regularly often feel betrayed when they still don't get the government they want. Somehow politicians' promises get lost after the elections in the mad shuffle of other interests, pressures and changing circumstances. While most citizens retain confidence in their own representatives, the whole always seems much less than the sum of the parts (which may help explain why so many run for Congress by running against it: "If only my colleagues would agree with me on how best to save the Republic.").

Most midterm elections are local, we are told, except when they are national, as in 1974 and 1994. This year may well go down as one of those national midterms, though there will be a difference of opinion over what nationalized it. In 1974 there was no doubt that the public punished Republican lawmakers for the sins of their president. In 1994, on the other hand, there were a variety of explanations: a backlash against President Bill Clinton's botched health care plan, a discontent with an arrogant and detached Democratic Congress and an affirmative embrace of changes promised by Republicans.

Likewise, this year pundits are pointing to a national referendum of some kind: against President Bush's performance in general, against the Iraq War, anxiety over an uncertain economy and the arrogance and corruption of the Republican Congress. It's a veritable Chinese menu of referendums — pick your favorites. However, if there is a common thread running through all of the above it is a message for change (though neither party's candidates nor the voters seem to have any specific changes in mind).

When it comes to Congress, the one general thrust for change coming from the electorate is for more civility, a willingness to abandon bad practices such as wasteful spending, and a commitment to greater bipartisan cooperation in tackling long-festering problems such as Social Security and Medicare insolvency, the lack of a national energy policy, soaring deficits, the immigration impasse and no apparent exit strategy in Iraq.

It's not that most candidates for Congress disagree about the need for a more bipartisan approach to problem solving. Look at any TV clip of a campaign gathering and you will witness a room full of heads nodding in agreement as candidates decry the politics of "petty partisanship" and "partisan bickering" and vow to work across the aisle to solve the country's problems.

Unfortunately, when those same politicians get to Washington, D.C., their lofty ideals are soon forgotten as both parties begin positioning themselves for the next election cycle by disagreeing on almost every issue coming down the pike. And there may be even more pressure to do so the closer we get to the 2008 presidential election.

It's ironic that a half-century ago the complaint was just the opposite. People were turned off by the fact that "there's not a dime's worth of difference between the two major parties"; and, "they're just like Tweedledee and Tweedledum." Then the call was for "a more responsible two-party system" in which the parties would take distinct positions on the issues and be held accountable for their promises. Today the complaint is that the two parties are so busy opposing each other on everything that they can't accomplish anything of great importance.

Let's just imagine, for the sake of argument (and hope springing eternal), that this time our elected representatives not only get the message the voters deliver at the polls today but actually remember to pack it in their bags when they come to Washington and then unpack it and wear it every day in the new Congress. This prospect raises a number of interesting questions, the most obvious being whether elected party leaders will allow their troops to pursue such a new course. Or will they insist that Members shed their bipartisan work gloves and instead don their traditional red and blue ties (the better to grab opponents by in the heat of debate)?

We are told by political scientists that party leaders in Congress actually are the "agents" and Members are the "principals." That is, the leaders exist to carry out the wishes of their followers. If a majority of Members of both parties comes to Washington with the voters' cries for bipartisan change still ringing in their ears, will the leaders find ways to make that work? Or, when freshman orientation begins on Monday, will party leaders revert to the customary practice of herding their new charges onto separate party buses as soon as possible ("Do not fraternize with the enemy!")? It is something worth watching very closely.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.


Copyright 2006 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.

EMAIL UPDATES

Experts & Staff