Why the raging dysfunction in Washington is the new normal

In all likelihood, it doesn't get better

D.C. dysfunction
(Image credit: Illustration by Lauren Hansen | Image courtesy iStock)

When Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy abruptly withdrew from his frontrunning candidacy to succeed John Boehner as speaker of the House, it underscored just how dysfunctional the "governing" Republican Party has become. The dispute within the party is not ideological — the degree of policy consensus within the Republican conference is remarkable. Rather, the dispute is tactical. Some party elites, like Boehner, understand that there's no chance that Republican objectives like repealing the Affordable Care Act and defunding Planned Parenthood can be achieved with Barack Obama in the White House. Members of the Freedom Caucus, conversely, believe (or pretend to believe) that threatening government shutdowns and debt defaults can somehow force Obama to sign bills erasing his primary policy achievements. No wonder nobody wants the job.

It's tempting to think that this rolling crisis, in which threats to the basic functioning of government become routine, is a temporary phenomenon. But there is a very real and frightening possibility: This is the new normal. The presence of two ideologically coherent parties, combined with the separation of legislative and executive authority, is probably going to produce similar results whenever there's divided government.

There is a tendency to assume that the American constitutional order is inherently functional, and that there's no problem that can't be solved by replacing some bad actors in the legislature and/or judiciary. Nostalgic appeals to a more functional era are pervasive. In a recent interview with Gawker's Hamilton Nolan, for example, the dark-horse presidential candidate and legal scholar Lawrence Lessig asserted that the government "has no capacity to make decisions any more" and "it's trivially easy for any major reform on the left or the right to be blocked," but that "it's a 20-year problem" based on the fact that "such a tiny number of people are funding campaigns."

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

This is a happy story, despite the outward appearance of despair. If American constitutionalism is essentially functional, but has been ruined by some 5-4 campaign finance decisions issued by the Supreme Court, the problems can be solved. Not easily, but it's possible to think that the next unified Democratic government can restore order.

But the truth is considerably darker. First of all, Lessig underestimates how difficult major social reform has always been in the United States. It was "trivially easy" for any major reform to be stopped before the author of Citizens United had even been born. The vast majority of the federal welfare and regulatory state was passed during two very brief periods: FDR's first term and LBJ's first three years in office. Otherwise, the alleged Golden Age of American politics was largely defined by statis.

Furthermore, it's not a coincidence that the brief periods of reform occurred during periods of unusually large Democratic supermajorities in Congress. And even these periods were far from unalloyed liberal triumphs: The New Deal, for example, gave disproportionately fewer benefits to African-Americans to win support from Southern Democrats. The American constitutional order was designed to make major changes difficult, and it has largely succeeded.

Lessig is right, however, that some things have gotten worse in the last 20 years. It's never been easy to pass major reform legislation, and as the first two years of the Obama administration shows, it's still possible given enough Democrats in Congress. What has changed is that it used to be possible to do basic tasks like keeping the executive and judicial branches properly staffed and the government funded. Congress could also at least pass compromises on issues of lower-order importance. Things have gotten genuinely worse in recent decades in these respects.

Where Lessig is wrong is to think that there's a magic bullet that can fix the problem. Reducing the role of money in politics and increasing access to the ballot are salutary initiatives that would improve things at the margin, but the dysfunction of American government is rooted deeply in the American constitutional order.

As Matt Yglesias recently explained at Vox, the fundamental problem is the diffusion of accountability that comes from separating the legislative and executive branches. As Yglesias observes, "Within a presidential system, gridlock leads to a constitutional trainwreck with no resolution." Whether Democrats or Republicans are blamed for dysfunction in a period of divided government depends largely on who voters tend to support on a tribal level.

A paradox of the American separation-of-powers system is that actions like a government shutdown can hurt the reputation of Congress as a whole without threatening the electability of most individual members, a paradox Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has exploited brilliantly. Whereas congressional leaders in the opposition used to think that they had to collaborate on at least some issues with a president to avoid being punished, McConnell and other contemporary leaders have recognized that denying the president accomplishments hurts the president more than it hurts them. And lest any Republican member of Congress consider returning to the old norms for the good of the country — I know, but let's pretend for a second — they're likely to face a viable primary challenge.

Does this mean, as Yglesias argues, that American democracy is "doomed"? This is unclear. But it does mean that the dysfunction in Washington, D.C., is likely to get worse before it gets better. And pretending that any single reform — no matter how worthy in itself — can solve these deeper problems is whistling past the graveyard.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Scott Lemieux

Scott Lemieux is a professor of political science at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y., with a focus on the Supreme Court and constitutional law. He is a frequent contributor to the American Prospect and blogs for Lawyers, Guns and Money.