As I speak to people about the Congress, one question arises more than any other: Why is Congress gridlocked?
People are perplexed and disappointed with its performance, and are searching hard for an answer.
The roots of Congress’ dysfunction are complex. But the fundamental reason is that real differences in beliefs about government exist among the voters.
Conservatives place a heavy emphasis on liberty, individual freedom, and self-reliance. They have little confidence in government’s ability to play a role in improving society or the economy, and many of them look upon government as destructive, a force that undermines our basic freedoms.
Moreover, a belief has taken hold among conservatives in recent years that compromise and accommodation are betrayals of their cause. This has put great pressure on GOP leaders not to budge in their negotiations with the White House and Senate Democrats.
Meanwhile, on the “progressive” side there is much greater emphasis on using government to narrow economic disparities and help those at the bottom of the income scale. They emphasize equality of opportunity for all and individuals’ responsibility to the community around them. While they do not favor a radical centralization of power in the federal government, as some conservatives charge, they are more willing to accept government action – and the legislative compromises that make it possible.
The gap between these views appears unbridgeable. It is not.
That is because most Americans find themselves somewhere between the extremes, able to see merit in both conservative and progressive ideas. When I was in office, I often found myself thinking that many of my constituents were conservative, moderate, and liberal all at the same time. That hasn’t changed. They may be wary of excessive government, but again and again they turn to government at some level to help solve the problems they complain about, and they want it to work effectively and efficiently. More than anything else, Americans want to see moderation and cooperation from their political leaders.
In the end, Congress usually ends up about where most Americans want it to be. So I’m not surprised how, when dire problems confront them, both conservatives and progressives in Washington find their inner pragmatist.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.