A giant in chains

Lowell Harp
Posted 4/2/24

The most powerful nation in the world fails again and again, like a giant in chains, at the most basic tasks of government.

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A giant in chains


The most powerful nation in the world fails again and again, like a giant in chains, at the most basic tasks of government.

The spectacle that recently played out in Congress is a good example. You know something’s wrong when the simple act of passing a budget is a crisis. Likewise when proposed laws supported by a majority of the House or Senate can’t reach the floor for a vote.

Immigration, Ukraine, and Gaza are emergencies that cry for immediate action. Congress, meanwhile, is paralyzed. It seems too much to hope that by the time this article appears, it will have somehow managed to respond to these crises.

Congressional inactivity has cost us dearly over the years. It’s drawn presidents and the courts into trying to take on responsibilities that rightly belong to a legislature. Presidential and judicial decrees are makeshift, undemocratic, and ineffective substitutes for the law-making duties that Congress has failed to fulfill.

Fareed Zakaria, who grew up in India, presents his perspective on the weaknesses of our political institutions in his book, “Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World.” He offers as an example our erratic, inconsistent, and second-rate response to the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020. The difference, he says, between us and nations that managed the crisis effectively isn’t about the size of government, or about liberalism versus conservatism.

The thing that those countries have in common is “a competent, well-functioning, trusted state.” His chapter title puts it this way: “What Matters Is Not the Quantity of Government, but the Quality.” This is where America falls short.

Mr. Zakaria places the blame on liberals for adding “layers upon layers of bureaucracy and regulation,” conservatives for starving the government of needed funding, and both for micromanaging government agencies instead of allowing them the independence they need to do their jobs effectively. He sees the checks and balances running through every level of government as another facet of this resistance to letting it get on with the task of governing. Requirements for approval from multiple parties for every decision “ensures that someone, somewhere can always block any positive action.”

Mr. Zakaria didn’t mention the Senate filibuster, which can enable a Senator to block a vote on a popular measure, but it’s surely an example of the veto power that individuals or small groups can wield. The House of Representatives, for its part, has a tradition, called the Hastert Rule, that denies a vote to a bill unless it’s supported by more than half of the majority party, even if it has the backing of most of the House as a whole. In both cases, a small group — or even a single politician — can effectively veto measures that are both popular and urgently needed.

Being the most powerful nation in the world has allowed us to more or less get by so far, but the damage from our “battered and creaky institutions” — in Mr. Zakaria’s wording — is taking its toll. “There are many liberal democracies that are just as free as America,” says Mr. Zakaria, “but with governments that are far more competent. In tackling the pressing challenges of our time…America has been failing for a generation.”

Mr. Zakaria insists that the solution isn’t necessarily a bigger government, but instead one that has ”limited power but clear lines of authority.” I would add to that a Congress that’s capable of making decisions.

Reforms to our political system are part of the answer. Something still deeper is even more critical. Beneath it all is a distrust of any and all governments — and of each other — that drives us to erect roadblocks to needed action.

Only when we resolve that issue will America cease to be a giant in chains.

Lowell Harp is a retired school psychologist who served school districts in Ogle County. His column runs monthly in The Ogle County Life. For previous articles, you can follow him on Facebook at http://fb.me/lowellharp.