Broken government

October 25, 2006|By Cal Thomas

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Of all the pre-election polls, punditry, analysis and forecasts, one stands out. It is a new CNN poll conducted by Opinion Research Corp. that found an overwhelming number of Americans (78 percent) believes "our system of government is broken."

Democrats predictably blame Republicans for this as part of their strategy for returning to majority status in Congress. Just as predictably, Republicans blame Democrats for being "obstructionists" and not letting all that good legislation hatched by the GOP get through.

It isn't actually our "system" of government that is broken. The Constitution established an excellent system from which contemporary leaders regularly seem to depart. The founders gave us the parchment equivalent of a GPS system that, if followed, gets us where we ought to go, but if ignored causes us to become lost. No, the system has worked quite well until recently. Rather, it is the way Republicans (now) and Democrats (when they last had the majority) have made a mess of it. The system is crumbling under the weight of too many expectations.

Members of both parties have asked government to do for them what they should first be doing for themselves. Instead of telling people about self-sufficiency, government has subsidized and encouraged self-indulgence. Instead of telling religious people - conservative Christians especially - that government can't do more for them than the God they claim to worship, both parties have allowed, even encouraged, believers to think politicians can help build the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

Instead of government as a last resort, too many (Republicans included) turn to government as a first resource. Government was not designed to carry the burdens placed on it by the public, lawyers and lobbyists.

The founders created a system of limited government. It is not functioning like one today because we now view government as unlimited. For many, faith in government is now stronger than faith in God - in practice if not in theory. Our faith in government to rid the world of totalitarian regimes, while at the same time caring for children and grandparents whose welfare should be the first responsibility of their families, was always destined to disappoint. Democrats tell us that if we return them to power, things will be better. No, they won't, because the problem isn't which party has a majority. It is far deeper than that.

In his book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, writes that expanding the number of congressional committees and subcommittees (which began in 1974) and opening up the system to more public access had a downside. The post-Watergate reforms were meant to "make Congress more open and responsive," writes Mr. Zakaria. "And so it has become - to money, lobbyists and special interests."

Once, members of Congress met behind closed doors for "mark-ups" of legislation. There, deals were made. Today's openness means that lobbyists literally monitor the members during this process, and if they hear something they don't like, they reach for their cell phones. Within minutes, a special interest group has swamped the member's office with calls and faxes.

In his book Demosclerosis, Jonathan Rauch draws on the insights of economist Mancur Olson to argue "that the rise of interest groups has made American government utterly dysfunctional."

That will not change, no matter which party has the majority after the election, unless both parties in Congress decide to repair it. Both Republicans and Democrats helped break the system, and voters, as well as nonvoters, let them get away with it. We wanted government goodies. They wanted to get re-elected. Lobbyists wanted money. It was an unholy and unhealthy alliance.

Government is like Humpty Dumpty. Unless there is real reform, all the Democratic horses, just like all the Republican horses, won't be able to put government back together again.

Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is calthomas@tribune.com.

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