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Is the System Really Broken?

David Callahan

The supercommittee's failure is producing a predictable rash of handwringing about America's broken democracy.

"Does the American political system even work anymore?" began a story in today's New York Times. Not according to many of the ordinary people interviewed for the piece -- most of whom blamed both parties and Congress writ large for the failure.

Recent polls show that these views are widely shared. Public approval for Congress is at a record low, with both parties disliked in nearly equal measure.

These numbers are yet more evidence that Americans don't pay close attention to politics. Because if you do follow what's been going in Washington, you know that the problem here is not both parties and it is not our political system -- a system which has endured for over 200 years.

The problem is conservative ideology.

Before the rise of the extreme right, starting in the mid 1990s, Congress was perfectly able to tackle tough fiscal challenges. Congress passed legislation to reduce deficits in 1982, 1984, 1987, 1990, and 1993. Nearly every instance of major deficit reduction included a mix of new revenues and spending cuts (with the balance weighted toward revenue in the Reagan years).

That was then.

The workings of Congress have not changed much since these past successes at deficit reduction. To be sure, procedural obstructionism is used more often in the Senate today than two decades ago and there is also much more money coursing through Washington. But Congress is otherwise the same institution it was in the 1980s. Nor has the Democratic Party changed that much. As in the past, today's Democrats include many fiscal hawks -- too many, if you ask me -- and key party leaders are more willing than ever to cut deals for the sake of deficit reduction.

Just look at the "grand bargain" offer that President Obama made to John Boehner over the summer which was comprised of $1 trillion in new revenue and $3 trillion in spending cuts, including entitlement reforms.

In an earlier, more normal era of U.S. politics, any Congressional leader on the winning side of this kind of lopsided deal would have been celebrated by their caucus. But Boehner turned down Obama's offer. Why? Because traditional politicians like Boehner no longer control the GOP; ideologues do, whether it's the Tea Party anti-tax extremists within the Republican caucus or the enforcers outside, like Grover Norquist.

The deal proposed by the bipartisan Gang of Six -- which also included $4 trillion in cuts, but $2 trillion in revenue -- went nowhere for the same reason. I was no fan of the Gang of Six proposal, but that group showed how Congress is supposed to work: members from across the aisle chain themselves together for months until they reach a compromise in which both sides cede ground. In earlier times, that hard work would have been rewarded as enough other members fell in line from both parties to secure a deal. Not anymore.

There are plenty of reforms that could make our political system work better. Getting rid of the filibuster in the Senate would be a good start. (A better start would be overhauling representation in the Senate so that states with 600,00 people don't get the same say as states with 20 million -- something the founders can't possibly have anticipated.)

Still, as long as hardline conservatives control the Republican Party -- a party that used to be a responsible governing partner -- more gridlock lies on the horizon.