A while ago there was an interesting discussion on the web about whether it’s possible for interest rates to be negative. You put a dollar in the bank at minus 3 percent interest and get back 97 cents after a year. Why would anybody do that when the mattress option is available? Strange economic times breed strange questions like this. And strange political times raise a similar question: Can an institutional approval rating go below zero? Because Congress is almost there.
As a rule, I am fairly cynical about the constant criticism of “Washington” from politicians (most of them trying to get or stay there), media talking heads, and ordinary citizens. It’s cheap and just another way to pass the buck. At this point, taking a poke or two at “Washington” is almost required throat-clearing in any speech by anyone on any subject. People say that “Washington” ignores the country’s needs and wishes, because it is too concerned with protecting its own power and wealth. This is a fairly incoherent complaint, since the best way to keep your power and/or wealth in Washington is to figure out what the citizens want and give it to them. The real problem that people outside of Washington have with people inside Washington, whether they realize it or not, is that the Washington insiders are not alchemists. They don’t fail to deliver what the citizens demand out of indifference to the wishes of the citizens. They fail to deliver what people want because, short of turning lead into gold, it’s impossible. Lower my taxes, cut the deficit, and don’t touch my Medicare.
However, an essay by George Packer in the August 9 New Yorker (“The Empty Chamber”) has almost changed my mind. (The issue is already off the stands—sorry, I’m a little slow—but it’s still on the web, and for free!) Packer’s subject is the United States Senate. Packer, who usually writes about war and stuff like that, doesn’t have any juicy new scandal to report. But his opening description of a typical couple of days is enough to reduce any thinking citizen to tears of laughter. And then tears of rage. A lethal combination of ancient parliamentary rules, the speeded-up new news cycle, the fundraising nightmare, and increased partisanship—all on top of a very strange arrangement (two Senators per state of any size, etc.) dictated by the Constitution--have made it almost impossible for the Senate to achieve anything.
After reading Packer’s piece, it would be easy to come up with half a dozen rules that would really improve the situation, without requiring any major changes in human nature. Of course even if the Senate is reformed, there remains the problem of the citizenry.
(NOTE: And please don’t quote Brecht to me about how, when the government loses confidence in the people, it should dissolve the people and elect a new one. Funny line. I've heard it. So what?)