Suppose you ran a business and, when checking your employees’ job performance, found they only got an average 20 percent score.
You might decide that, with more employee effort or some new workers, your business would run more successfully. You would probably consider firing at least some of them.
Well, you are the boss, and the people you have hired to run your business only receive that low score. You are an American voter, and the Congress you have elected only receives a favorable rating from about one-fifth of voters. Democrats do better than the GOP, but both parties score badly.
While each party plays the blame game with the other about the federal government shutdown, voters say they focus more on the inability of Congress to produce any result. Partisan warfare has blocked compromise. The majority GOP believes the Democrats should admit defeat, while the Democrats try to use the little power they have.
The Constitution places Congress first among the three branches of government. Instead of playing its prime legislative role and forcing presidents to decide to accept or reject bills it has passed, legislators have turned over most of their power to the president.
Just two days before the last government shutdown, GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the media, “As soon as we figure out what he [Trump] is for, I would be convinced that we were not just spinning our wheels.” In short, the GOP Senate majority leader won’t lead, unless the president approves the plan in advance.
This attitude makes the president both executive and legislature, leaving Congress to try to come up with bills that please the White House.
In this year’s version of that process, President Trump has made the role of White House as legislator even more difficult by sending highly conflicting messages about what he wants.
Arizona GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, no friend of the president, concluded, “We can’t wait for the White House anymore.”
Congress should do its constitutional job and present the president with bills produced in the normal legislative process, almost certainly with some bipartisan support. Then, as a separate branch of government, it would be in a stronger position to press the president not to veto a bill, rather than assuming his veto in advance.
The failure of Congress to function by producing legislation to send to the White House is one reason why voters give it low grades. That failure results from its virtually total focus on politics rather than policy.
Members of Congress believe they can win re-election if they push policies that pander to their core constituents or can be sold to them by simply being labeled authentically conservative or liberal.
What they miss is what the polls always show. Most voters care more about having a functioning government than about specific policies. That view is especially true for independents, who can provide the margin of victory in presidential or Senate elections.
These swing voters may be ignored because many congressional districts are designed to produce guaranteed winners. Through this “gerrymandering” process, state legislatures create districts to be won mostly by big GOP majorities. Members of Congress cater to these pre-set majorities.
Instead of functioning like the lead branch of government, as the Constitution intends, Congress cares more about party positioning for the next election than about passing urgently needed legislation.
Party unity leads Republicans to try to please their president, though Trump is turning out to be hard to please. But the GOP, despite its earlier more constructive positions on immigration, now seems to be falling in behind him on the issue. Still, they have trouble following his daily moves on Twitter, and they don’t have enough votes to win.
At times, the Maine Legislature provides a better model. Because state law requires both passing a budget and, usually, a bipartisan two-thirds vote to adopt it, the Legislature can play its constitutional role. Such bipartisanship will be under challenge this election year.
Right now, Republicans control the U.S. Senate and House as well as the presidency. While not all Republicans agree, they may be capable of reaching a broad consensus among a large majority of them. If they then gave just a little ground to the Democrats, Congress could function.
Having control of both the presidency and Congress, the GOP risks being held accountable for failing to produce results. With an erratic president, who turned out not to be a dealmaker after all, Congress is missing the chance to reassert its equality with the president.