Yes, Washington is broken under President Trump. But it was broken long before Trump came to town — and there’s no reason to expect his departure will fix it.
That’s the message of “Our Damaged Democracy,” a new book by Joseph Califano, the former U.S. health secretary and veteran Washington hand.
“We face a disproportionately powerful presidency, a gridlocked and distracted Congress, politicized courts, dependent states and a big-bucks-shaped public policy,” writes Califano, an important contributor to policymaking since he helped craft President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs in the 1960s.
The same problems existed a decade ago and have gotten worse. Califano argues these trends will only reverse if there’s a crisis or national political awakening. The presidency grew way too powerful because Congress forfeited its war powers responsibilities and then complained about executive overreach only when the other party was in power.
But Califano writes that Congress isn’t the only part of the government that has found its influence diminished by an imperial presidency. Within the executive branch, he argues, too much authority has been vested in the White House and too little in agencies.
In 1960, Califano writes, there were 50 full-time officials at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; today there are 2,000. The National Security Council staff has increased twentyfold, to 400, and the number of people in the White House communications and counsel’s offices has exploded.
This reduces the influence of experts and politicizes policymaking.
“As the White House staff becomes micromanagers, they tend to lure the president into micromanaging” at the expense of focusing on larger matters, Califano writes.
Congress today is rarely a serious legislative body. The number of competitive seats in the House of Representatives has gone from hundreds to dozens. This reduces any incentive to find the common ground that’s required for effective legislating.
Congressional “reforms” often make things worse. Take earmarks, small appropriations intended to finance projects favored by individual members. Congress eliminated earmarks in 2011 in a supposed bow to good government — at the same time eliminating an essential tool to produce compromises and make deals.
“We would not have passed the Great Society without earmarks,” Califano said in a telephone interview.
Many lawmakers spend more time raising campaign money than legislating. Overall spending for federal elections in 2016 reached $6.5 billion, up more than sixfold from 20 years earlier. Former members say the constant pursuit of money is corrupting.
Reforming this insidious system should be easy enough, requiring little more than public financing of campaigns coupled with incentives to keep contributions small. Public funding of presidential campaigns was introduced in 1976 and for a while it worked. Then politicians punched loopholes, a series of foolish Supreme Court decisions reopened the door to unrestricted spending and secret campaign donations, and public financing withered.
Congress could require full public disclosure of all contributions. Instead, the current Congress is considering, behind closed doors, the opposite: widening existing loopholes in the remaining restrictions on campaign money. It’s an incumbent protection scam and incumbents love it.
Califano thinks news organizations make gridlock worse. Too often, he charges, social media and cable television broadcasts exacerbate polarization and divisions while providing little enlightenment.
If you doubt it, try this: Watch Fox News and MSNBC for a night, switching between them every hour. It’ll be like riding a space shuttle between different universes. Then try to persuade a casual viewer of this truth: There really is a difference between a top-notch reporter like NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and the ideological fare on MSNBC, and between the serious journalism of Fox News’ Bret Baier and the network’s right-wing provocateur Sean Hannity.
I agree with most of Califano’s analysis. But even he underestimates how difficult it will be to create positive change. Sure, some improvements should be attainable. Referendums in a handful of states have created nonpartisan redistricting commissions to blunt the impact of gerrymandering. Legislators can be pressured to cut the White House staff budget. And why not keep trying to shame a Congress that has shown little capacity for shame? But Califano also argues that there’s a realistic way to create more involved, informed voters and to organize sustained citizen action that transcends partisanship.
I’m skeptical. Change on that scale usually needs a transformative event like the Great Depression, the Vietnam War or the Watergate scandals. Public disgust in today’s state of affairs has instead brought about the rise of Trump.
There’s a test underway now of whether frustration can produce a more constructive result. That’s the push for gun control led by teenagers activated by the slaughter of 17 people at a Florida high school. A rally is scheduled in Washington for March 24. That’s a start. We’ll have to wait and see whether they’re still at it six months or a year later, and whether progress looks sustainable.