Why is America’s political system so dysfunctional? (2)

Just over a week ago, I did a posting about why I thought the United States political system was broken. I invited comments, expected some, and received none.

Well, in the past week, the US Congress took a decision that highlighted the absurdity and sadness of the present political impasse. It decided that the tomato sauce used to make pizzas is a vegetable which it manifestly is not. The point is that it can make a decision on this matter – following heavy lobbying – but it cannot agree a deficit reduction programme or a reform of the healthcare system.

In an interesting article in today’s “Observer” newspaper, the judgment and the analysis in my earlier posting are confirmed. The piece refers to “a growing perception that US politics has become dangerously dysfunctional” (just the word I used).

The reasons are many but dominating factors are too many elections and too much money on elections and lobbying. The article states:

“The influence of money and the development of a “permanent campaign” mentality have gone hand-in-hand. As campaigns stretched out, they required more money. It has to come from somewhere, and so in recent years the lobbying industry has ballooned. Nor is that money free. Special interests, whether a big oil company or union (or even a frozen pizza-maker) expect a return on their investment. The figures alone tell the story. In 2010 lobbyists spent $3.5bn on their activities, up from $1.4bn in 1998. In the same year there were almost 13,000 official lobbyists in the capital, and thousands more unregistered.”

In my posting, i highlighted the US Constitution as a major cause of the dysfunctionality of the American political system. To reduce the number of elections and to curb the money spent on them – not to mention some renegotation of the complex system of check and balances – all require constitutional change and in practice the Constitution is almost unchallengeable. The “Observer” piece puts it this way:

“America’s system of governance, designed by the founding fathers and then jiggled around with since, suddenly seems ill-equipped to deal with the nation’s problems. The checks and balances built into the constitution appear gridlocked, rather than promoting sensible governance. Nor is it just ordinary people who feel this way. America’s inability to get important things done has a global impact. This summer, when ratings agency Standard & Poor’s handed out a first ever downgrade to the world superpower, it was clear why. “The downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges,” the agency said.”

You can read the full article here.

I would still welcome comment.


  • Chris

    The funny thing is, all of these politicians, who accept the lobbying costs, are more often than not multi-millionaires. So if they did actually solve the solution, they might be beaten in an election, they’d still have a nice nest egg to cope with life outside Washington. They simply don’t understand how the average American lives.

  • Barbara Tibbetts

    As an American I am fed up with our politicians, we desperately need political reform for term limits, campaign spending, and lobbying! How do you get change when the people voting on it are the ones gaining so many financial benefits from: No Term Limits, Unlimited Campaign Spending, and Profitable Lobbying?
    And this is only the tip of the iceberg!
    All the favors passed out for government contracts, the lies that created the foreclosure fiasco, etc. The answer is term limits folks, no amount of money can re-elect someone if the law limits them to 2 terms!

  • Roger Darlington

    Hi, Barbara. Two points:

    1) If you are going restrict elected representatives to two terms, then the terms of members of the House of Representatives will need to be longer than two years. In most countries, the term of members of the lower house is four or five years.

    2) Even term limits would not unblock the the deadlock in Congress without other changes such as abolishing the need for 60 votes in the Senate.

  • David Barry

    In today’s Financial Times on page 13 of the paper edition, under the heading “COMMENT” there is an article by Francis Fukuyama entitled:-

    “Oh for a democratic dictatorship and not a vetocracy”

    He talks about “paralysis” in the current American system. If I understand him aright he blames this on the combination of checks and balances AND ideologically polarised parties. The article will be on FT.COM as well.

  • Roger Darlington

    Sounds about right to me, David.

  • Russ

    Hi Roger, I hope you are doing well!

    I read both of your posts. I really don’t have any points to offer on specific issues such as the filibuster in the Senate, money in politics or term limits, but I wanted to offer a broad comparison then a few specific points.

    The broad comparison: If you ever watch a football match, the losing manager often complains about the quality of the pitch or the refereeing. The winning manager? Everything was perfect, right? Whether we have won or lost can establish a context through which we view the fairness or quality of the process.

    I think the same is true in the political economy. When times are good and the national pie is ever-expanding, we don’t interrogate whether the underlying system works well. We are happy with it because we assume it delivered the good results. And when the pie starts to shrink, we cast about and assume the system must have serious flaws. These democratic systems, both in Europe and North America, are put under strain when much tougher decisions must be made.

    This is why the EU was considered such a success a few years back and we now view it as a partial failure (at least the EMU portion and the Lisbon Agenda). And now people are questioning the US system in a similar manner. That’s fair, of course, but it must be viewed in the context of the terrible global recession we are in.

  • PoliticalPizza.org

    Listen up, those clowns up in Washington have utterly and totally forgotten that anybody with a net worth of less than a Mill. exists. That’s the main problem.

    Next, now hear this, the Parties are serving business interests with not only public office but the Law itself. Why do so many brainwashed Americans say it’s legal for the Insurance Lobby to make a Law that we will each and every one do business with them? Is it legal for an apple farmer to make a Law we’ll all buy apples? Is it legal for a beef farmer to make a Law we’ll all buy beef? Is it legal for a website owner to make a Law we’ll all read his site? Why Mandatory Insurance? What a coup for the evil rich men.

    We’re not all too stupid to fight this. I’m suing them, and running for something soon.

    WE NEED Americans in Office who aren’t dirty millionaires!

    What’s the difference between a Republican and an insurance banker?

    There isn’t one.

    There’s another Book out by a guy who studied Political Science in Alabama. John Crandall,Down and Out in the Tennessee Hills.


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