Not long ago decrying that “Washington is broken” was the realm of campaigning politicians and the Tea Party, however it has now become established fact and cliché. It is essentially the reason given by S&P for the downgrade, it has become a favourite of journalists when padding reports and columns, it is every second phrase that comes out of John McCain’s mouth, and it has supplied Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert with a plethora of jokes. However, where opinions differ is the reason for Washington’s intransigence. Mainstream opinions blame the influence of the Tea Party and Lobbyists, the over-democratisation of Washington, and partisan 24-hour cable “news” channels among many other factors. But the real reason that Washington is broken is the lack of responsibility and blame.
Anyone who watches politics will notice the influence of independents. While partisans on both sides will rarely ever cross the floor, independents swing wildly, punishing politicians based upon actions and events instead of ideology. When Independents are negatively affected, they blame the parties responsible. Therefore responsibility and culpability play a crucial role in the decision making of independents, and by extension in elections. A notable example is the fact that no US President has been re-elected with an unemployment rate above 7%. Whether rightly or wrongly, the independents blame the President for their dilemma and vote accordingly.
However, apart from the aforementioned example, the assignment of blame is notably absent from Washington’s Republican system, largely due to their extensive and vague separation of powers. A current example is the debate over the lack of job growth in America; which is being in turn blamed on Obama by the Republicans, the Republicans by Obama, the Democrats by the Republicans, the Republicans by the Democrats etc., and all with some degree of validity. Obama has indeed neglected to use his executive and budgetary powers (among others) to effect job growth, the Republicans have had the majority in the House of Representatives for six months and have similarly failed to produce a jobs bill, and the Democrats have contented themselves with demagoguing Republican proposals and proposing more pie in the sky Greek-esque luxuries. They have managed to get away with this due to a lack of a responsibility (or mandate) to act, as there is no institution/group solely responsible for the economy. As long as it is possible for politicians to blame each other, and in the process confuse independents, escape culpability and inspire their radical bases (due to a lack of responsibility); there is no genuine incentive to act. Only when politicians feel the ire of the independents, and as a result fear losing their positions, will they develop the “bravery” to act and compromise as is needed.
The solution to this mess is not rocket science. The Westminster system has long seen governments become more moderate as they face the realities of balancing total control with total responsibility. This is mostly due to the unique structure where the majority in the parliament also controls the executive. While this does mean there is no requirement for compromise, the party in charge must accept full responsibility for failure as well as success. Yes, there are current examples of Westminster governments (such as Australia and Great Britain) pushing through unpopular bills in the face of consternation. But they are held completely responsible, they will face the consequences at the next election, after which policies are either proved correct or set right. There is no intransigence. The Independents will hold them responsible for their actions. The Westminster system is not perfect, but it also does not foster demagoguing and obstruction. It sets clear mandates and responsibility. Instead of throwing mud, parties must act and act well in order to survive.
I don’t expect Washington to change. The US Constitution and the will of the founders are far too sacred to be messed with by our unexceptional generation. However Washington is broken, and if the US wishes to fix it, clear mandates and responsibility need to be established. As in the Westminster system the powers and responsibility of each institution should be beyond question so that how they are performing can be clearly identified. Once voters are able to identify the parties responsible for actions and events, the fear of Independents will force Washington to compromise and act.