Murphy is the director of FixUS, the democracy reform advocacy arm of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a fiscal policy think tank. Murphy is also chief of staff for that organization, and Tomchik is deputy chief of staff.
If you had a problem, and someone with a thousand years of wisdom and experience offered you guidance, would you listen?
We all know that Washington has fallen into disrepair. Despite billions of dollars spent on presidential and congressional campaigns, it is stuck in an endless cycle of hyper-partisanship and legislative paralysis. The fact that nothing ever seems to change has left Americans feeling frustrated and politically homeless. And it's caused them to lose faith in our democratic institutions.
What happened? How did a country that rose to the occasion so many times throughout its history suddenly become incapable of the most basic aspects of governing?
The short answer is that, quite simply, good governing is no longer good politics. There was a time when public officials were rewarded for the hard work of legislating and forging the necessary relationships with members of the opposite party to solve pressing national issues. Now, that is no longer the case.
For our new report out this month, "Why is Governing No Longer Good Politics: Reflections from a Thousand Years of Public Service," we surveyed former elected and appointed officials representing nearly 1,000 years of public service spanning the presidencies of John F. Kennedy to Donald Trump. They were asked to respond to two questions: "Why does it seem that good governing is no longer good politics?" and "What has changed and what can we do about it?"
We conducted much of this research prior to the 2020 election, but the findings are as relevant as ever. No one leader or party brought us to this moment alone. The perspectives contained in this report include former members of Congress, ambassadors, Cabinet secretaries, White House chiefs of staff and other civil servants. Respondents were equally split between Republicans and Democrats to gather as wide a range of views as possible.
They confirmed our worst fears about the dysfunction of our political system — but they also expressed hope that change is possible.
Specifically, respondents were candid in lamenting how our electoral system contains built-in incentives that prioritize party loyalty over governing, starting with the role of big money in elections and the gerrymandering of districts. The latter is especially noteworthy now, when states are getting ready to redraw their congressional lines as soon as the delayed detailed population figures from last year's census get finished.
Former officials also emphasized how the rise of toxic media and social media environments have stoked our tribal natures, reinforced our self-imposed echo chambers and shifted the focus from important policy discussions to stories that foment outrage. This has made it tougher for policymakers to agree on a shared set of facts, making it virtually impossible to address the major challenges confronting our society.
There is also the personal obligation all of us have if this cycle of dysfunction is to be broken.
Almost every former official was insistent that for change to occur, we the people must hold our leaders, and one another, accountable. Our representative democracy is dependent on those who show-up and make their voices heard. Only by championing leaders who choose to govern, compromise and work with each other can we make governing good politics.
Few moments offer an opportunity for change quite like the start of a new presidency and a new Congress. Even after the pandemic subsides and the economy recovers, this country faces daunting obstacles — the most consequential of which is whether we can heal our political wounds and bridge our divides.
And history shows it doesn't have to be this way. "In my over 50 years of public life, I have seen Washington at its best and Washington at its worst," our report quotes Leon Panetta, the former secretary of Defense, White House chief of staff and House Budget Committee chairman. "The good news is that I have seen Washington work."
These days it's easy to forget that we're a nation that survived the pain of Vietnam, sent a man to the moon, emerged from the constitutional crisis of Watergate and achieved the triumph of democracy over communism. None of this was achieved by sheer luck; it required a government, elected officials and a people to work together and govern together.
A millennium worth of public service has come together in starting a conversation about how to make Washington work. The question now is whether we will heed their advice.
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Murphy is director of the FixUS initiative at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which educates the public about issues with significant fiscal policy impact.
A dozen Democratic primary debates have already been announced, with the first taking place this week. While everything from Medicare for All to impeachment and immigration are sure to be raised, I fear not a single question will be asked on the topic most needing discussion – the state of our democracy.
Whether in Iowa living rooms, New Hampshire union halls or South Carolina coffee shops, the presidential primaries offer a chance to raise issues that often fall off the radar once nominees are chosen and the general election is under way. The first primaries and caucuses are a mere seven months away and there's no doubt that countless advocacy groups are already on the ground, organizing and hoping to elevate their issues with both voters and candidates.
Having run a coalition effort to bring attention to the importance of the national debt in the 2016 cycle, I'm intimately familiar with the work being undertaken by advocacy groups in these early states. Unfortunately it is now four years later, and our debt situation has greatly deteriorated. Next year, the federal government will spend more on interest payments on the debt than it spends on children – in other words, we'll be doing more to finance our past than invest in our future.
While candidates for federal office are and must be asked how they will fix the debt, this time around there is a more pressing question that needs to be asked – one that affects not only the debt, but the ability to make progress on a multitude of issues confronting the electorate.
The question goes something like this:
"My primary issue of concern is [fill in the blank], but politics in Washington have been mired in gridlock for years. Even when things are passed in Washington, it is often by party-line votes with the risk that it will be overturned after the next election given how divided we are as a nation. As [president, senator or House member] what changes will you make to help heal our national divisions and ultimately improve our government's ability to function and address pressing challenges? And how will you lead in Washington to make sure these changes are enacted?"
Pinning candidates down on specifics here is important, given that politicians for years have paid lip service to the need to bring us together to solve problems but to no avail.
The worsening of the debt, along with a range of other policy problems, symbolizes the brokenness of our political system – one that routinely discourages making tough choices or achieving bipartisan compromise, that focuses on short-term political gain at the expense of solving long-term issues, and that in many ways is set up to reward hyper-partisanship over making progress on behalf of the American people.
Consider the following report card tracking our lack of progress since the start of this century, the time in which the millennial generation, now the largest eligible voting bloc, came of age to engage in and observe our political discourse:
- Since 2000, the gross national debt has risen from about $5.6 trillion in 2000 to nearly $22 trillion today, an average increase of $47,000 per person.
- From 2000 to 2017, national health care costs grew three times faster than average household income (Table H-9).
- Nine of the 10 warmest years have occurred since 2005, with 2014 through 2018 ranking as the five warmest years on record.
- High school test scores in the United States ranked 18th in math and 14th in science among OECD countries in 2000. In 2015, the United States ranked 30th and 19th.
- Average in-state college tuition has more than tripled since 2000.
- The American Society of Civil Engineers gave United States infrastructure a D+ grade in 2001; in the most recent report in 2017, you guessed it – still D+.
Admittedly, focusing on just these stats is a gross oversimplification of the issues facing our nation. Each of these illustrative problems have strong ideological differences on how they should be addressed, and our system of government was designed to be slow in enacting change.
But what is important is this – majorities of Americans would agree that some sort of resolution is desirable. We have policy ideas that have been developed by those in each party, yet minimal progress has been made.
The hyper-partisanship that has come to define our politics has produced a predictable, all too familiar cycle. Major legislation is passed on a party-line vote, with the opposition vowing to undo what the majority has done.
Is it any wonder why public trust in government is at record lows?
As Albert Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. While continuing to press for action on the debt and other issues remains important, the political climate seems ripe for a cross-partisan coalition to come together under common cause to reform our political system.
The good news is the seeds of such an effort have already been planted. Over the past few years a multitude of groups have sprouted up, dedicated to better understanding the root causes of our political divisions and advancing changes.
Some of these seek to enact electoral and governance reform, such as redistricting, campaign finance reform, ethics reform, changes to congressional rules and a host of other institutional reforms. Others are studying how our economic system has contributed to rising anxiety and political tension, and encouraging action to address increasing economic disparities and an economic system perceived as no longer working for many Americans. There are also those attempting to promote new models of civic engagement and civil discourse, seeking to confront a growing cultural divide and a sense of lost shared values.
Much like fixing the debt, there is no silver bullet or cure-all that will address the polarization that has led us to this state of affairs. The root causes are interrelated, long in the making, and may take years to enact required changes to alter our trajectory. With all eyes on 2020, and the nation's attention focused on politics, it is incumbent upon those who seek to lead our nation to answer how they would address the meta issue of our time and for us to ask it.