Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate in economics, opined in his blog Economics and Politics that America is currently suffering from a problem of governance. Along the same lines, other pundits have suggested that Congress and the White House’s continued game of high-stakes Russian roulette over fiscal matters jeopardizes the credit and standing of the United States in the global economy. The economic dip that our country has been experiencing is thus as much a function of bad politics as it is of pure economics. And on the political end, things are only getting worse.
Concerns regarding the ability of the federal government to resolve America’s most pressing issues reached new heights when Congress narrowly reached a tentative agreement to avoid the “Fiscal Cliff.” Recent data from Gallup indicates that the American populace holds Congress in historically low esteem. According to Gallup, Congress entered the new year with an abysmal approval rating of 14 percent and a disapproval rating of nearly 72 percent. Furthermore, in a recent poll conducted by Gallup that asked participants what they identified as the most significant problems facing the country, “dissatisfaction with government” ranked third, followed closely by “unemployment.”
Certainly, much of the U.S. government’s current dysfunction is attributable to a divided and stubborn Congress, in which Republicans hold the House of Representatives and Democrats hold the Senate. Sworn in on January 3, 2013, the 113th Congress of the United States retains many of the political characteristics of the previous, 112th Congress. With a Senate comprised of 53 Democrats, 2 Independents, and 45 Republicans, the Senate maintains its Democratic majority but also remains susceptible to the filibuster, which has been increasingly employed in recent Senates. The House of Representatives, however, remains in Republican hands by a margin of 233-200. Thus, with a docket filled with deadlines pertaining to important fiscal issues, it seems that the perceived weakness of Congress will not disappear in the near future.
While it seems convenient to foist the blame of government inefficacy on out-of-touch politicians or incompatible, conflicting ideologies, demographic trends suggest that the current crisis in the federal government may be symptomatic of local governance. For one, the districts of the American electorate have increasingly been drawn to allow for political parties to retain control over historically partisan districts.
Nate Silver, the sabermetrician and statistician who rose to prominence after his political model accurately forecasted the results of the 2012 presidential and congressional races, seized the shifting sands of local politics. According to Silver, a mere 35 swing districts existed in the 2012 presidential race, down from 103 in 1992, rendering districts substantially comprised of centrists politics increasingly rare.
As constituted, an overwhelming number of Congressional districts serve as de facto single-party districts, whereby no meaningful political opposition exists for politicians, and no meaningful political choice exists for voters. While the extent to which these new local political monopolies account for America’s governance problem remains uncertain, there is a strong correlation between politically competitive districts and the willingness of Congressional leaders to compromise. Current congressional districts fail to incorporate a multitude of competing ideas and allow our leaders and representatives to shirk any meaningful dialogue with political opponents. For a nation in which competition is a virtue, the United States government is currently suffering from a competition problem.