Is America governable?

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

U.S. Capitol for blogThe American republic has limped past being dysfunctional and stumbled into being ungovernable. Even if you hate the government, this situation should concern you because it means big problems aren’t being addressed, while new ones are being created.

Two current legislative fights illustrate this reality – No Child Left Behind and the broken immigration system.

Congress has yet again stalled on its long overdue reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. That’s bad, because this law is completely unworkable. Signed by President George W. Bush in 2002 and passed with bipartisan support, it required that 100 percent of American students in grades 3-12 test at their grade level by the end of the 2014 school year, or the federal government would punish the schools where they didn’t. That’s every single child, regardless of language difficulty or intellectual challenge – a requirement so ridiculous that Congress ought to fix it, but it can’t. As a result, the Obama administration has been granting waivers to states telling them how they can disobey the law.

The president is supposed to enforce the law, and Congress is supposed to write laws that make sense, right?

The same applies to immigration. The president wants to ignore the laws Congress has passed, and Congress can’t agree on how to fund the Department of Homeland Security in response. Meanwhile, the border remains porous, and millions of people live in the shadows among us. Children brought here by their parents basically have no home country. Meanwhile, the United States quite effectively limits the influx of skilled overseas workers – exactly the people we need.

If these two issues were outliers, we could deal with them. Unfortunately, they’re the norm. A few other examples …

The national debt. Uncle Sam now owes $18 trillion, or the equivalent of $57,000 for each American. The debt has doubled since 2007 and tripled since 2001, and it’s still rising. The only possible solution is to reduce spending substantially while collecting more revenues somehow. There’s not a remote possibility that Republicans and Democrats in Washington will agree to do that.

Health care. Prior to the Obama administration, the United States already had the world’s most expensive health care system. It denied insurance because of pre-existing conditions and stopped paying for patient claims if they became too expensive. Then the Affordable Care Act was rushed through Congress, causing its own problems and leading to who-knows-what. Now the act faces a serious Supreme Court challenge over its wording regarding federal exchange subsidies. Pulling this leg from the stool could cause Obamacare to collapse. Lots of people would be happy about that, but … what’s the plan after that?

Infrastructure. The gas tax, which funds highways, has not been raised at the federal level since 1993. It is destined to produce less and less revenue because cars are becoming more fuel efficient through both market and government demands. Everybody knows the model is unsustainable, but there’s no agreement on its replacement.

It won’t be enough to vote for different people in 2016. Washington simply doesn’t work any more, regardless of who is in office.

That’s because Washington reflects American society, which itself is marked by contradictions and divisions. We simply don’t agree on how to solve problems, or even about what the problems are. We’re deeply divided culturally, morally, about what we want this place to look like, and about what we think it once was. That lack of consensus makes it very hard to solve difficult issues. Moreover, Americans say they don’t trust government but then choose to be profoundly dependent upon it, rarely recognizing the irony. The result is that we grow government without paying for it.

This is a depressing column, so let’s close with solutions. Congressional term limits? A balanced budget amendment? Campaign finance reform? All could help.

Meanwhile, many decisions should be returned to the state level, where democracy still manages to work sometimes. Red, blue and purple states could solve problems in their own ways, often learning from each other. Americans would be free to settle in states where they felt most comfortable.

This could cause its own problems, including irreconcilable legal definitions of discrimination and a race to the bottom on environmental regulations. A poor state like Arkansas might find its niche, or it might just get poorer.

Something big has to happen – bigger than the next election. When a country becomes ungovernable, problems can’t be solved simply by electing different people to that government.

3 thoughts on “Is America governable?

  1. An excellent column as usual, Steve.

    As I said during my recent Congressional campaign, we cannot have top down solutions emanating from Washington for a country of over 300 million diverse individuals. There is no way to make the country governable that way.

    I think eventually the States are going to have to stand up straight on their hind legs and force the issue with the federal Leviathan. The States will have to tell the national government “No!” in no uncertain terms and be willing to do without federal bribes to play along.

  2. I agree with your assessment but not sure I agree with your solution. There should be a balance of states rights and United States governance. That is why we are the United States of America. Giving states total and ultimate control turns them into little fiefdoms. We have seen some of that during the Bush era, here I am speaking of education mainly. In the case of education, we are much better collaborating with the greatest minds in our country/world instead of isolating our decisions to only the best minds in our state.

  3. Hi, Ken and Melanie. Thanks for reading and for writing. Ken, that’s an interesting take. I don’t know if states would have the guts to do that, but it would be interesting to try. Melanie, we really probably agree. I’m not calling for a return to the Articles of Confederation – just a rebalancing.

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