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Despite political gridlock, hope remains, say alumni in government

Although there is obviously political gridlock in the government right now, it can be remedied, alumni panelists said in a discussion moderated by associate politics professor Paul Frymer.

Participants in the discussion were former congressman James Leach ’64, former Republican majority leader Bill Frist ’74, U.S. representative from Maryland John Sarbanes ’84, assistant managing editor for TIME Tom Weber ’89, Special Assistant to the President Joshua Pollack ’99 and Michael Shapiro ’09, former senior policy adviser at the White House National Economic Council.

Leach noted several causes for the current political gridlock, among them historical events such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the recession. He said that negativism has become the norm in politics, as politicians think increasingly about “me” rather than “we.” Finally, he said that the Supreme Court’s recent rulings that have given more rights to corporations have caused the country to move toward oligarchy in politics.

“In the history of this country, the Supreme Court has played a great balancing role as an institution,” he said, adding that in recent years “it has made a series of the single worst decisions since the Dred Scott hearing.”

Sarbanes noted the importance of campaign financing in creating gridlock, and that a current congressional campaign costs around $1.6 million, with most candidates spending 30 to 70 percent of their campaign time on fundraising. This emphasis on funding, he said, takes time away from candidates’ ability to study the issues they are dealing with and to get to know their colleagues.

“That makes it much more difficult to reach compromise and have conversations,” Sarbanes said.

Cynicism in the American people is another cause of gridlock, Sarbanes said. As people grow increasingly disillusioned with politics, they leave the “political town square,” allowing those with extremist agendas to rush in.
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Frist explained that there is a precarious balance in Congress between the House of Representatives, where two-year terms create a “politics of offense,” and the Senate, where six-year terms mean that people worry less about being reelected and create a “politics of defense.” That balance is now disturbed, he said, by the fact that many senators now simply vote the way their majority leader tells them to vote.

“I had thought of the majority leader as the groundskeeper at a cemetery — many bodies are shifting beneath your feet, but when you speak, nobody listens,” Frist said. “Now, when the majority leader says vote one way, everyone votes that way.”

All panelists agreed that solutions to the gridlock problem exist. Sarbanes said that the overemphasis of campaign financing can be addressed by empowering small donors, so that candidates will depend less heavily on money from large organizations such as political action committees. Too often, he said, congressmen wonder, “What would my patrons think?”

Pollack said that the solution lies in actions that increase accountability for people who help create gridlock. He also suggested easing up veto power in certain areas of the checks and balances system, noting that veto power combined with extreme partisanship contributes to gridlock.

The result of congressional gridlock is not inaction, but action taken by parties other than Congress, Pollack said. He added that he expects the number of executive actions taken by Obama without Congress to rise in the future.

The panel discussion, titled “Political Gridlock — Can We Do Better?” took place on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. in McCosh 50.

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