Blame Congress, the GOP, and society itself.
There have been some pretty bad Congresses over the course of American history, and I don't know enough about all of them to judge whether some might be worse than this one -- but I can say without hesitation that this is the worst Congress I've seen in my lifetime.
Some of the problems are functional: The Senate, for example, insists on maintaining rules that in the current era of political confrontation make it incompetent as a legislative body. But far worse is the House of Representatives, which is controlled by a political party that New York Times columnist David Brooks says, "May no longer be a normal party." According to Brooks, it "has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative."
Compounding the problem with the current majority in the House is the detached disdain with which issues of governance are regarded by much of the populace. The common refrain of "what are those clowns in Washington going to do next" seems to absolve the rest of society for having elected such individuals. But the simple truth is that the problems in Washington were not created in the nation's capital -- they were created by electing people who represent two very different and incompatible governing philosophies.
One philosophy seeks to continue government programs in roughly the same manner they now exist with whatever combination of spending reductions and tax increases that may be necessary to close the budget deficit; the other aims to radically shrink the size and scope of government (with massive cuts to social programs like Medicare and Medicaid) so that taxes can be cut below current levels. In short, we have a dysfunctional government because we have a dysfunctional society -- a society that expects all the best without recognizing that each generation must pay its dues and that no society will move forward if parochial concerns repeatedly trump a broad-based commitment to the common good.
At the center of this unfortunate mindset is the notion that those things we do to promote the common good are bad by their very nature. Four decades ago, that perspective was alien to both of America's great political parties. The central reason that we all remember a kinder and gentler political climate in Washington was that in the golden era of the 1940s through the 1970s there was common ground on the idea that using government to accomplish useful objectives was a good thing. The days when the GOP believed that seem long gone.
The biggest and most successful use of government for social good during the last century was the G.I. Bill of Rights -- legislation crafted by Henry Colmery, a former chair of the Republican National Committee and Warren Atherton, a Republican congressman from California.
Dwight Eisenhower passed legislation in 1956 providing $25 billion (more than 5 percent of that year's GDP) to begin construction of a 41,000-mile interstate highway system. Every Republican in the Senate voted for the program, which passed in the House with a voice vote.
John F. Kennedy received strong bipartisan support for his proposals to massively increase spending on science and space exportation.
Or take Richard Nixon's 1974 health-care proposal, which was more comprehensive than the bill President Barack Obama has been vilified for signing. Nixon in his message to Congress said:
Beyond the question of the prices of health care, our present system of health care insurance suffers from two major flaws:
First, even though more Americans carry health insurance than ever before, the 25 million Americans who remain uninsured often need it the most…
Second, those Americans who do carry health insurance often lack coverage which is balanced, comprehensive, and fully protective.
And Nixon, when compared with some senators of his period such as Richard Schweiker, Chuck Percy, Jacob Javits, Mac Mathias, Charles Goodell, Ed Brooke, and Mark Hatfield (or governors like Nelson Rockefeller, Dan Evans, Francis Sargent, George Romney, and Dick Thornburgh), was not even viewed as a moderate within his own party.
But people of that ilk have now largely been driven from the GOP, and the few who remain are kept on a very tight leash. As Christine Todd Whitman, the former Republican governor of New Jersey and Environmental Protection Agency administrator, wrote in her book, It's My Party Too, "The Republican Party at the national level is allowing itself to be dictated to by a coalition of ideological extremists … groups that have claimed the mantle of conservatism and show no inclination to seek bipartisan consensus on anything."
That is exactly the struggle that Speaker John Boehner now faces in trying to find a way to prevent his country from becoming a global deadbeat, and it is exactly why this government has become dysfunctional. If the American people want to give up their Medicare for private insurance and want to stop Medicaid payments for nursing-home care and those impoverished by accidents or diseases, so be it. But until they make a clear decision, Washington and Congress will continue to be a mess.
Scott Lilly is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.