Among the questions that pollsters are wont to ask, there is one on which Americans have reached a stunning election-year consensus. Occupiers, Tea Partiers, fundamentalists, heathens, Republicans, Democrats, postpartisans—prick us all, and we bleed pretty much the same crimson contempt for Congress.
Our national legislature, coming off a breathtaking season of obstruction, extortion, gamesmanship and blather, is viewed positively by just 9 percent of the people it claims to represent, according to a recent New York Times survey. Even at the Washington Post’s slightly higher tally of 13 percent, we’re talking about an approval rating below those Gallup has given for banks (23 percent), oil and gas companies (20 percent) and lawyers (29 percent), and just above polygamy (11 percent).
Here is a polling trend for progressives to reflect on. And do something with. Something more than root for Barack Obama to barnstorm his way to a Truman-style victory over the do-nothings on Capitol Hill. Suppose he does. Suppose he carries his populist passion back from the campaign trail into a second term. Now try to imagine significant legislative progress on climate change, tax justice, regulation, workers’ rights—or public investment in infrastructure and job creation. That’s where the daydream ends.
Congress, as the founders intended (and recent events have painfully reaffirmed), is the uppermost branch of our government, wartime aside. In recent decades, it has turned itself into the dead limb of American democracy. Healthcare reform, the exception that proves the rule, emerged with all its self-destructive compromises from a tortured process that depended on a brief moment when the Democrats had exactly the sixty votes required to get anything done in the modern Senate. The current margin (counting two Democratic-leaning independents) is fifty-three to forty-seven, and appears destined to narrow or disappear after an election in which Democrats will have twice as many seats in play as Republicans.
In the coming months, the party of Jefferson and FDR will keep us posted on the (large) danger of losing the Senate and the (small) hope of recapturing the House. But even if things turn out better than we have any reason to expect, progressives would do well to rein in hopes for positive action on real issues. Congress has gone out of that business.
It is time to make an issue, and not just a punching bag, out of this dysfunctional and deformed institution—time to mobilize some of the Congress-disapproving 84 percent of Americans behind a high-profile effort to ultimately address (and in the meantime highlight) the root cause of Congress’s dysfunction: its built-in subservience to the corporate and financial powers that, more than any other force in today’s America, and regardless of the party balance, determine who wins, who loses and who is considered a “serious candidate” for election to the House or Senate.
The kernel of such an effort can be found in the Fair Elections Now Act, a proposal to provide matching funds (drawn, in the Senate’s case, from a fee on major government contractors; in the House’s, from the sale of unused broadcast spectrum) to candidates who otherwise agree to rely on small contributions from within their states and districts. Based on public financing systems road-tested in Arizona, Maine and Connecticut, Fair Elections Now polls favorably across the political spectrum and counts two brave Republican House members—Walter Jones of North Carolina and Todd Platts of Pennsylvania—among its ninety-five co-sponsors.