How to Fix Dysfunction in Washington

American politics suffers when Congress abdicates its proper role.
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The bitter ideological battles of our era obscure the fact that "liberals and conservatives largely agree on the boundless nature of presidential responsibility." So argues Gene Healy, whose 2008 book The Cult of the Presidency remains an underappreciated gem. "Neither Left nor Right sees the president as the Framers saw him: a constitutionally constrained chief executive with important, but limited, responsibilities," he explained. "Today, for conservatives as well as liberals, it is the president's job to protect us from harm, to grow the economy, spread American ideals abroad, and even to heal spiritual malaise."

Congressional coverage focuses on whether the presidential agenda is advanced or thwarted.

Why? The effects of this attitude ought to bother liberals, conservatives, and libertarians alike. To understand why, take a look at "The Ugly Truth: Why Presidential Leadership Can't Solve Gridlock," in which Ezra Klein interviews political scientist Frances Lee, who studies political incentives at the federal level:

Ezra Klein: You wrote a sentence that is really foundational to how I think about politics, but that I also think of as an incredibly scary sentence. It's basically that every time the president succeeds it hurts the minority party and every time the president fails it helps the minority party.

Frances Lee: The incentives definitely are against cooperation. If you support the initiatives that the president proposes or cut a deal with the president such that both parties vote in favor of that proposal, then it becomes hard to say why we should have a change in power. 

Later in the interview, Klein observes that "there's an interesting tension in Washington where we treat politics as a kind of an epic drama in which the president is the lead actor. And people want to see things happening from the president."

What if that changed? After Congress has passed a bill and sent it to the White House to be signed or vetoed, the president's incentives are aligned in many ways with the national interest. Under the nation's gaze, he or she has an incentive to cooperate with whatever majority passed the bill if he or she believes it does more good than harm, or if it is popular. It's better that legislation originates on the Hill than at the White House, and that it be treated as the legislature's doing, not a White House gambit.

Doesn't Lee's work suggest that conclusion?

But the political press, myself included, has a bad habit of focusing on the White House and its agenda. As a result, even Americans who frequently read about politics are clueless about how power is wielded by various congressional committees, how a citizen might influence his or her congressional representative on a given issue, and the way that partisan agendas are advanced by members of the legislature. It would make as much sense for the press to treat policy-reform efforts as the proper purview of the legislature, which holds hearings on various subjects, conducts debates, votes on particular bills, and decides whether to override any veto.

This isn't a call for obscuring the extent to which legislative pushes these days originate on Pennsylvania Avenue, or the expectation of American voters that presidents they elect will pursue a far-reaching agenda. But the press doesn't just report on policy. Journalists shape norms and expectations about who ought to do what. Since the focus put on the presidency is in tension with the very design of our Madisonian system, it's no wonder that the U.S. is so often mired in dysfunction.  

Subverting the "Cult of the Presidency" mindset is a daunting project. How the political press covers the nation's legislative agenda is but a single component of it. And even that little piece of the problem is going to be very difficult to tweak and improve. 

The difficulty is due to the incentives of national journalists.

President Obama is familiar to all of us. Becoming an expert on his history and agenda requires the study of just one man. An article about him requires no background information to catch readers up on the back story of the main character. And readers are more likely to click on a story about this universally known, polarizing figure than some member of Congress whose name they've hardly heard. The easiest way to personify any subject is to discuss Obama's opinion on it. For journalistic organizations and individual journalists alike, the incentives all point to covering national affairs as a drama where Obama plays the role of lead actor. Insofar as Congress, the press, and the people can resist these incentives, American government will function better and be more responsive to the electorate. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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