Famous atheist and political commentator Christopher Hitchens, managed to find just enough time between chemotherapy and his grueling schedule of debates and public appearances to write a column about why it seems that today’s politicians can’t seem to actually run the U.S. with any degree of competence, being a lot more interested in muckraking and campaigning than actually implementing ideas. His answer has been on the lips of quite a few political scientists and pundits so there’s really nothing shocking about it. But what’s really disconcerting about his column is how well these concerns are known, how often they’ve been raised in books, magazines, and think tank literature, and yet how they’re still waiting to be addressed. Here’s the quick summary: the process is basically broken, rewarding tabloid journalism, mudslinging, and partisan appeals over clear cut accomplishments, and dooming the elected to spend their terms looking for more money.
With the byzantine rules of any bureaucracy, especially an organization that primarily exists to create, process and review paperwork, it’s hard to get big things done. Earmarks have to be doled out to get others on board, hands need to be greased to ensure that the vote passes with as few objections as possible, the greasing in question taking the form of riders and addendums which tack on potentially unrelated pet projects, spending line items, and sub-programs into a single bill. That’s how seemingly simple sounding laws swiftly balloon to hundreds, if not thousands of pages. And even then, after the bill has finally been debated to death, revised in countless committee meetings, where it had to be watered down and bloated to make enough people happy, voted on, and passed, the burden of implementation now falls on agencies or courts which may not be ready to implement the bill’s provisions. Meanwhile, the lawmakers are on to another bill while their little legislative progeny is often being slowly unrolled with little to no supervision. This is why technocrats who get involved in the implementation and oversight of their project can do what the lawyers and diplomats rarely can and how so many seemingly good laws end up as such mediocre to alarmingly subpar programs.
Another major obstacle to getting things done is the shelf life of the average politician. Imagine a hypothetical, average politician we’ll call Jane Lawmaker. After navigating months and months of media obsessions with a prime time news story about everything she ever said or did, prying into her personal finances, putting up with nasty slander composed primarily of half-baked accusatory fallacies from her opponent, then dishing out her version of the exact same thing, doing her best to appease the party organizers and the rabid ideologues who desperately want to dictate her party’s dogma, she finally got elected. Good for her. Now where is she going to get the roughly $2 million she needs to secure another victory? Better start making time for luncheons, social events to schmoose with donors, and organize fundraisers while coordinating with party bigwigs. There’s no time to waste because the attack ads start in roughly 16 to 18 months, depending on just how competitive her district is seen by pollsters and how much mud her opponents can dig up on her in the meanwhile. If you tell me what someone for whom fundraising and granting donor requests in the form of pork barrels, earmarks, and riders is job one can honestly sit down and focus on long-term accomplishments, forgive me if I express some skepticism. And besides, how many major agendas can someone push through in two years?
This is where Hitchens comes in with his main argument. Anyone who actually wants to do this job, endure a media crap storm over every single word and every single picture ever taken of him or her, and come another election decides to do it again, is inherently too insane for the post and will by default be unable to affect any major changes on a national scale. And I would partially agree with Hitchens here. I say partially, because we all know that under duress, the government can get things done and get them done quickly. But usually, most of the stimuli and legal edicts tend to lack the necessary follow through on implementation, and only makes it back into the spotlight when something goes very wrong and someone absolutely has to fix it. And the fix is all too often just another bill which is again sent off for implementation with little oversight. So our politicians, the ones that don’t dominate the headlines for saying crazy or ridiculous things on a daily basis, but the ones who make it into office after verbally slathering each other in muck and ad hominems, and with their two, four, or a somewhat more generous six year with biannual upheaval, shelf life, try to navigate the current system we’ve allowed to flourish on Capitol Hill, are just doing the best they can. The real problem is that this system rarely does much more than move paperwork and produce political theater rather than real changes.