A fundamental dispute over the institution of slavery plunged the nation into a civil war a century-and-a-half ago. In 1856, violence over slavery erupted in the august chamber of the U.S. Senate, when an anti-slavery lawmaker from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, was caned on the Senate floor by a member of the House from South Carolina, Preston Brooks. Fans of the Broadway hit, Hamilton, have also been reminded of another black mark on U.S. political history, when the nation’s first Treasury secretary was killed in a duel by the sitting vice president, Aaron Burr, in 1804.
More recently, look at the emotional debates over racial equality and the Vietnam War during the 1960s and 1970s. The country witnessed the assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. The segregationist former governor of Alabama, George Wallace, was shot and paralyzed while he campaigned for president in 1972. Rioting and civil unrest plagued major cities and college campuses across the countries for long stretches at a time.
Fine, the 1860s and the 1960s were bad. But the fact that the nation hasn’t fallen into civil war and our leaders haven’t been gunned down is a pathetically low bar for a first-world country with the greatest military and strongest economy on Earth. Even during the tumult of the 1960s, Congress created Medicare and Medicaid, enacted landmark civil-rights legislation, and passed a sweeping education bill that still serves as the foundation for federal funding of public schools today.
Ever since Obama’s first two years in office, Congress hasn’t done anything except shut down the government and come close to tanking the economy with a near-default on the nation’s debt. Immigration reform stalled. Gun reform went nowhere. Congress can’t even agree to declare war on ISIS, and now that Antonin Scalia has died, it might leave the Supreme Court short-handed for more than a year.
Congress is hopelessly gridlocked, and we need major political reform to fix it.
What’s wrong with Congress? Or more precisely: Is anything actually wrong with Congress, or is it simply functioning how it was designed to function?
The confrontations over the last few years have led to rampant complaints that the national legislature is “dysfunctional,” which in turn has contributed to a stunningly-low approval rating for Congress. (It sunk to single digits and has recently hovered in the low-to-mid teens.)
For one, lawmakers in Washington have struggled not only to pass big bills, but they’ve had trouble completing even the most routine tasks of governance. In 2011, Republicans refused for months to raise the debt limit and nearly caused an unprecedented default that could have sunk the fragile economic recovery. Two years later, conservatives forced a two-and-a-half week government shutdown over funding for the healthcare law.