Nearly everyone is gobsmacked by last night’s election results. But should we really be so surprised? No, because a significant portion of the public has been down on the federal government for a long time.
Candidates for the presidency have been running as change-agents for decades. Jimmy Carter was the first of the recent outsider candidates: he was a Georgia governor with zero Washington experience. Then came Ronald Reagan, whom much of the media wrote off as an actor – until he won. In what must be a painful irony for Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton took the presidency from incumbent George H.W. Bush. His theme? Change. Current President Barack Obama also ran against Washington and promised change.
Donald Trump ran his campaign on the theme of change. He promised to “drain the swamp” and “make America great again.” Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state and first lady with extensive Washington experience, could not credibly cast herself as a change agent.
Ever since the tumult of the 1960s, American’s trust in the federal government has been eroding, according to both Gallup and Pew studies. The public rates new presidents highly, but the bloom inevitably falls from the rose. Voters have been particularly down on Congress of late.
“Congressional approval,” writes Jessica Gerrity, has been greater than 50 percent only four times in the past 40 years – 1985, 1987, 2001 and 2002. On average, in any given year, only about 32 percent of the public approve of the work Congress is doing. And in a recent development, no longer does John Q. Public hate Congress but think well of his own representatives and senators. He increasingly dislikes them, too.
It’s not difficult to see. Our national legislature struggles to keep the government open, takes forever to enact new laws and rarely abolishes failed programs. Partisan warfare is the norm, and reams of political science data show that the public hates to see such politicking.
So what’s the takeaway for Congress? When Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., took the speaker’s gavel, he hit the nail on the head:
[If] there were ever a time for us to step up, this would be that time. America does not feel strong anymore because the working people of America do not feel strong anymore. I’m talking about the people who mind the store and grow the food and walk the beat and pay the taxes and raise the family. They do not sit in this House. They do not have fancy titles. But they are the people who make this country work, and this House should work for them … [And when] they look at Washington, and all they see is chaos. What a relief to them it would be if we finally got our act together.
Congress needs to reform itself so that it can meet the public’s expectations. But it has a hard time doing that, because it continues to operate as if it is still 1900. It is in session only part of the year, valuable time is spent on hoary ceremonies and gasbaggery, and moving legislation requires working through Rube Goldberg-esque procedures. Government waste and fraud are common because Congress lacks sufficient staff and technical expertise to manage the $3.4 trillion colossus.
It is long past time for Congress to adjust to the realities of governing in the 21st century. The Constitution empowers both chambers to set their own rules, to organize themselves as they deem best and to invest in the legislature’s capacity to get stuff done. For certain, if business as usual continues, we can’t be surprised if voters vent their spleen in the next election.