Unemployed Wyomingites aren’t sure how they’re going to pay their mortgages or make their rent this August, the state’s energy industries are on life-support and small businesses are unable to plan for even the short term. Meanwhile Congress has seized into complete COVID-lock, unable to do the very job they are hired to do, at exactly the time we need them the most.
Further adding to the descent of democracy, the White House announced that since Congress can’t do its job, the president will employ his “emergency powers” and do whatever he personally thinks is best — yet another assault on representative government. Because the Legislative branch is in such disarray, lawmakers show no spine to protect their Constitutional authority, affably allowing the most critical economic decisions of our generation — and the fate of a few trillion dollars — to be determined by a single individual.
The problem is not the personalities of our congressional leadership, but the consequence of a 50-year path that began in 1970 to dismantle the functioning features of the Legislative branch, replacing it with a byzantine system designed to preserve personal power by protecting legislators from their voters.
Congress and its enablers have built two warring castles to replace a functioning legislative body that once passed critical landmark legislation. To defend their respective castles, lawmakers allowed sophisticated geocoding to create House districts so safe that 87% of U.S. Representatives get to pick their voters instead of the other way around. They passed campaign finance laws which allow the political parties to raise virtually unrestricted amounts of money to be re-directed only to incumbents, while restricting any challenger’s ability to raise competing funds. They exempted themselves from antitrust laws to block consultants, advertisers, lawyers and advisors from working for rivals. They rewrote the rules governing primaries, where roughly 90% of elections are decided.
Stone by stone, they fortified their castles, which protect roughly 90% of those inside from losing their jobs each election despite a 70% disapproval rate. It is a protective system that allows Mitch McConnell to have the second lowest Senate approval rating among his own constituents, and still have his upcoming election ranked safe.
These statistics are not accidents, but the result of 50 years of institutional self-protection, leading to safe jobs for Congresspeople but of no help to Wyoming families.
The grand idea was that someone like Utah’s Mitt Romney, son of a CEO who then forged his own glittering career in business, would sit at the table with New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich, whose mother was a seamstress and who spent most of his career working for non-profits. In the proudly deliberative United States Senate , they would pool their diverse experiences and viewpoints, and regardless of party, craft effective legislation — creating solutions greater than any one legislator could construct by themself.
No doubt Sen. Barrasso (R-Wyoming) and Sen. Feinstein (D-California) share many of the same concerns. But working together is out of the question. And it’s families from Gillette to Green River who pay the price.
In return for institutional protection provided by party leaders, our senators and representatives emerge from their castles only to release on camera a few harmless arrows at the other side, cheer for themselves and then retreat back to fecklessness — obeying the instructions of their respective party leaders.
Fortunately, we know how to tear down their walls. And has the need to do so ever been more plain to see than in their failure to address the economic impact of the pandemic?
Reforms are already in place and working in some states and localities. Non-partisan, open primaries, like we see now in Maine, followed by ranked choice voting, punishes extremist candidates and rewards problem-solving moderates. Non-partisan redistricting like what is in use in Iowa strips the parties of their iron control over candidates, allowing voters to choose their representatives instead of the political parties choosing their voters. Term limits demolish an archaic seniority system that ignores performance and rewards only longevity.
The economic and emotional toll of the pandemic is astonishing, exacerbated because we have no good legislative mechanism to respond effectively, and instead have resorted to a level of presidential power that increasingly looks more like King George than George Washington.
Economic remedies to problems we now face are out of our republic’s reach until we’re prepared to engage in real rip-out-the-roots political reform.