The American people have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the performance of the United States Congress over the past several years. According to monthly Gallup polls, the public’s dissatisfaction with Congress averaged a pathetic 62.7 percent in 2009. But dissatisfaction has grown worse in each year since 2009, reaching an average of 81 percent last year.
Ironically, while dissatisfaction with Congress overall has increased, Americans re-elect the same members of Congress 90 percent of the time.
The question, then, is what kind of individual should we be electing to Congress to get the kind of Congress we want? Regardless of our political orientation, we all want Congress to produce a balanced budget. We want that budget to pay for government services that enhance our quality of life and align with our sense of liberty without impeding our pursuit of happiness.
In my opinion, we are electing the wrong kind of people to get the outcome we want from Congress. We are electing smart, well-meaning people in many cases, but those people have confused being successful in their political party with making the government better. For such people, being successful in Washington means being a successful Republican or a successful Democrat. The motivation to succeed within a political party leads our members of Congress to do all sorts of things not consistent with good government. We should elect people who understand that making government better is not the same thing as being a successful Democrat or successful Republican.
Both major American political parties are businesses, and they are in competition with one another for power and for money. The inertia of these organizations is to treat every issue as a zero sum game: one party can’t win without the other party losing. That inertia leads both parties to adopt policies that are bad for the country. It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just two political businesses doing what we should expect political businesses to do. The problem is that the people we elect to Congress support their party’s bad policies to be successful within the party structure. As George Washington warned in his Farewell Address, allowing loyalties to party or faction to become stronger than loyalty to country is the greatest threat to our republic. A couple of recent examples illustrate this point.
On the Democratic side, the recent Senate bill seeking to extend long-term unemployment benefits is out of step with other government actions that signal the economy is no longer in a recession. Like the Federal Reserve’s monthly purchases of billions of dollars of U.S. Treasury bonds, long-term unemployment benefits were an emergency measure adopted in 2008 when the recession was just beginning. The intent of the extended unemployment benefit was to bolster demand within the economy by helping those who lost their jobs and were unable to quickly find work due to the recession. Ensuring these people had money to pay for food and other essentials was a smart way to keep weakening consumer spending from making the recession worse. The federal government paid for the extended benefits with taxes paid by all of us, in contrast with traditional unemployment benefits, which are funded through taxes paid by businesses.
Late last year, the government began to taper its purchases of Treasury bonds, citing an improving economy. Improvement in the unemployment rate was part of that assessment. Extended long-term unemployment benefits expired at the end of 2013. The Senate bill passed in early April would retroactively pay extended benefits to those who would have continued to receive benefits had the emergency program remained in effect through May of 2014. If the economic improvements cited in the Federal Reserve’s decision to taper Treasury bond purchases are real, there is no reason to extend emergency unemployment benefits, and certainly there is no sound economic reason to do so retroactively. The extension seems a blatant election-year attempt to pander to voters. Given the inability of Congress to pass a balanced budget, members voting for the extension are buying votes with tax money, hurting the long-term fiscal stability of the country.