by Pete Mazzaccaro
There’s a serious problem in politics. And that’s an understatement.
Finally, after several weeks of gridlock that shut down the federal government, an agreement was reached on the nation’s debt ceiling and spending that allowed the government to reopen and, for the most part, for business to continue as usual. Nothing much changed except for the Republican party’s polling numbers, which managed to plunge to record lows.
The reason for the shutdown is different depending on whom you ask. Republican leadership in the house called it President Obama’s shutdown, putting responsibility for the closure on the President for failing to cave to House demands to first defund the Affordable Health Care Act, aka Obamacare, and then to delay its implementation for a year.
Democrats and quite a few Republican Senators, including former Presidential candidate John McCain blamed stubborn Tea Party Republican legislators who refused to acknowledge the fact that the law had been ratified by Congress, signed into law, upheld by the Supreme Court and had resisted votes to repeal it more than 40 times.
But all of this had very little to do with the eventual real result of the shutdown: The public’s opinion of government continued to erode. And any hope we may have had of improving government performance by actually electing better people is even more dim than it was before the shutdown.
Despite very clear choices in last year’s presidential election, less than 60 percent of eligible voters cared enough about the choice to make it to the polls. That’s more than 90 million Americans who didn’t vote.
A common explanation for this is that a big part of the country just doesn’t care enough and that they deserve the government they get. I think, though, that a sizable portion of those non-voters are those who are disgusted with the whole thing and feel that elections really don’t offer much of a choice at all. I find it hard to argue with that position.
This is not an easy problem to solve. The main problem as I see it is that actual politics is out of fashion, with campaign narratives more focused on political figures who stand on principle, are unbending in their devotion to ideology and never commit a dreaded political “flip flop” that would provide fuel for campaign commercials of their opponent in the next round of elections.
Of course, that is the perfect attitude to guarantee a government that doesn’t function. To govern in a democracy, you must constantly compromise. You must make deals and respect majority rule. If you feel like standing on principle and protesting the popular vote, you don’t belong on the floor of Congress but should be out on Pennsylvania Avenue with a sign in your hand.
How do we solve this? Perhaps one way is to get people active again, inspire their sense of civic duty and get them to the polls, particularly in primaries, which now tend to favor party ideologues, feeding future gridlock. But talking people into being involved in the electoral process is not an easy task.
A better idea might be to introduce performance pay for lawmakers. If the government shuts down there is no paycheck. If votes are missed, that paycheck is docked accordingly. The fundamental idea is this: Lawmakers are in congress to make sure government works, not to be a wrench in the gears. The only way to get lawmakers to behave might very well be to make their pay depend on it.