This is England, what we’re supposed to die for. This is England, and we’re never gonna cry no more. Black shadow of the Vincent, falls on a Triumph line. I got my motorcycle jacket, but I’m walking all the time. South Atlantic wind blows, ice from a dying creed. I see no glory, when will we be free? So sang the Clash in the 1985 single from their sixth and final studio album. Written by Joe Strummer and Bernard Rhodes, it was the band’s last single.
Pundits from both the left and the right, and everywhere in between have discussed how the problems that America is facing will only be solved by people on both sides of the political aisle coming together and compromising. One of my favorite commentators, John Mauldin, wrote this week in his Thoughts from the Frontline letter, The only way out of this, the only way to preserve what we have and get through the 2020s, is for people to set aside their tribal loyalties, work together, and find solutions.
Mr. Mauldin and many of the other non-partisan talking heads are correct. No major problem can be solved, and no major initiative taken when is supported by only one side of the duopoly political system that we have in the United States. The lack of bi-partisanship, or better yet, non-partisanship, is why Obmacare has been such a failure (it failed to gain even one republican vote). It is why the current Impeachment hearings have been such a farce, and why the last Impeachment, that of President Clinton, was also a complete charade.
The fact is, the American governmental system was designed to bring what the Founding Fathers called factions together. It is why the system was designed with multiple layers of institutions, all of which had to share power, and, hopefully, to agree on big decisions. It was why government was decentralized so that people living in one state or community did not have to face the same day to day laws and regulations as those living in a completely different one. The system was complicated, it was slow, but it worked for about 200 years.
However, since 2009, the system has devolved into something that is completely dysfunctional, and has begun to operate more like the system in Great Britain. It has become a Parliament. Rather that in the republican (small r) system that was designed by the Founders, the British Parliamentary system is not designed to facilitate compromise. Rather, the ruling party (or in some cases ruling coalition) controls all political debate and decision making, and the opposition can only hoot and holler and call out the government on the dumb things that it does. The Prime Minister serves as a de facto King for a period of time, and as long as they control a majority of votes in Parliament, can call all of the shots.
The recent election in Britain demonstrates this. When a ruling party loses control of a parliament, there is a quick election, and a new ruling majority is chosen by the people. Parliament got hung up on a Brexit plan, the Prime Minister called an election, won big, and now controls the entire Brexit plan.
Congress was never designed to be a Parliament. It could not be since is was so easy for different parties to control different parts of the legislature. It was designed to be a deliberative body where members compromised, traded votes, and worked deals in order to get things passed. Today, 99 percent of Democrats vote as their party tells them 99 percent of the time, and so to do Republicans.
Two things. First, and probably most importantly, is that beginning in 2009, with the 110th Congress, so called Member Items, or earmarks, began to be eliminated, and by the time President Obama was beginning his second term, they were basically banned by both parties.
While many earmarks are not well founded, and lead to airports in the middle of unpopulated rural areas, or million-dollar bridges to nowhere, or research and arts funding for amazingly crazy things, they are also the oil that greases Congress. With member items around, a House Speaker who needs 20 votes from the other party to carry an important bill or reform, can encourage them by funding a National Monument, or an airport or a college in their district. Not only does this give members reasons to vote with the other party, but it also makes them more accountable to their district, rather than to national special interest groups, for both support and votes.
Without member items to grease the skids, difficult and divisive national issues such as abortion, or so-called climate change, take center stage since most money for reelection now comes from the national party or major lobbies and PACS, not from local businesses and boosters.
The other thing that came to for in the first decade of this century was big data. New ways of organizing and collecting data, and new geographic analysis techniques allowed political parties to segment populations much more accurately than they had been able to in the past. This, tied with the 2000 and 2010 census and required legislative redistricting measures have allowed parties to gerrymander districts to the point where very few legislative seats at either the national or local level are actually contested across party lines. There were at most about 80 battleground districts (out of 435) in 2018, and this was a banner year for them. In fact, a member of congress is more likely to lose their seat to a member of their own party in a primary fight rather than in the general election. This is made members even more partisan as they seek to ensure that their party hierarchy does not primary them.
Between the gerrymandering and the lack of member items, Congress has become locked in a constant partisan battle that precludes any real work from being accomplished. This is why both President Obama and President Trump have had to rely on Executive Orders and administrative rules and recommendations to propel most government work. It is simply impossible to get laws passed.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that, like in Britain, a new election will end the gridlock in Washington. No matter who is ultimately elected President, it is very unlikely that either party will see the type of veto-proof majority that allowed Nancy Pelosi to get Obamacare into law. For now, This is England, and the Clash will continue. I see no glory, when will we be free?