While Congress as a whole is unpopular, the vast majority of congresspeople are supported by the majority of their constituents. You may dislike Congress, but chances are you like the representative you voted for, and if you voted against your representative chances are that the people who did vote for your representative are pleased with his or her performance.
If the primary job of each individual congressperson is to represent his or her district, then I see no evidence that they are failing to do so. The problem is that the districts have moved farther and farther apart. There are far fewer swing districts than there used to be, and so if congresspeople actually represent their districts, there will naturally be more polarization as the districts themselves become increasingly polarized. The chart below shows the relatively rapid polarization by classifying each of the 435 house districts as being either swing, leaning Dem/GOP, strong Dem/GOP, or landslide Dem/GOP.
I’ve written a longer post with more evidence of polarization in congress, but for now I just want to point out that districts themselves are becoming more polarized. This is due both to gerrymandering and to natural geographic polarization of the electorate. The result is that in 2012, even though House Democrats got more votes than House Republicans, Republicans maintained a majority.
It’s worth pausing to note that all the other people affected by the shutdown were also doing their jobs, so even if each congressperson is doing their job by representing their constituents, it seems unfair that they continue to get paid. But it’s not really a sound argument to suggest that because some people are unfairly suffering another group of people should also be forced to unfairly suffer. That said, I can’t bring myself to care all that much what happens to members of Congress, they’re all in relatively good positions to absorb a missed paycheck anyway. The reason I bothered writing about this is because of what it implies about the possible solutions to the shutdown.
If the problem is the individuals in Congress, then the solution is both simple and appealing. Throw the bums out! But if each congressperson is actually representing their constituents, then there’s no reason to think the new group will be any better. Instead, the solution must come from either changing a system that was intentionally designed to produce gridlock, or from changing the policy preferences of the United States population.
Of the two, I would think it would be easier to change the system (although accomplishing that task also involves changing at least a few minds). Let’s take the current shutdown as a case study.
First, remember that this shutdown is not actually about budgeting levels. Both sides have already agreed on a very low level of spending.
In fact, we’re surprisingly close to having enacted the original Ryan Budget. But this shutdown isn’t about the budget, this shutdown is all about Obamacare. That wasn’t the original plan of the House leadership. Instead, it started with a group of 80 conservative Republicans. Here’s a map of the original movement to defund Obamacare.
What we have are 80 representatives representing districts where their citizens are okay with shutting down the government in order to stop Obamacare. While they aren’t acting in the country’s best interest, or even in the Republican party’s best interest, I see no reason to believe they aren’t acting in the best interest of their constituents.
Perhaps the better question it ask is how 80 members, representing just under 1/5 of 1/2 of the U.S. legislature are able to shutdown the government. Outside money and polarizing media may play a role in pushing a few moderate Republicans to go along with the defund movement, but by far the biggest factor is that we have a system that is purposely designed to be inefficient in order to combat the threat of tyranny.
Subsequent comparative political science literature has shown that Madison may have not only gone overboard, but actually made the government less stable. Dylan Matthews summarizes the evidence:
Scholars of comparative politics have shown that presidential systems with a separation of executive and legislative functions, like America’s, are considerably more likely to collapse into dictatorship than are parliamentary systems where the executive and legislative branches are merged. That’s because there are competing branches of government able to claim democratic legitimacy and steer the ship of state at the same time — and when they disagree profoundly, there’s no real mechanism for resolving the dispute.
This is exactly what we’re seeing now. Up until now, there was significantly more overlap between the parties. Although there were only two parties one could sensibly talk about Northern Republicans, Northern Democrats, Southern Republicans, and Southern Democrats (Dixiecrats). The Civil Rights movement and subsequent elections shifted all of that. There are no almost no Southern Democrats and no Northern Republicans.
It’s unclear to me whether or not there are realistic possibilities for fixing this. There are a few reforms that would make passing legislation easier and there are voting procedures (e.g. an open primary where the top two move on to a run-off election regardless of party) that could make marginal improvements. Even then, it’s tough to see the sequence of events that leads to those reforms being adopted.
At any rate, I do firmly believe that acknowledging what’s going on is the first step towards collectively solving the problem. Blaming congresspeople may feel good, but in the long run it doesn’t get us any closer to the solutions.