You don’t need me to tell you that the chattering class is appalled by the partisan gridlock and political bickering that keeps Washington from dealing efficiently with the nation's problems. Last week Gallup measured Congress's job approval at 11 percent, a new low. Heading into Christmas week, you could hardly open a paper or turn on the radio without encountering a wave of dudgeon over the latest legislative squabble -- a standoff over extending a payroll tax cut that expires on Dec. 31. "Just when you thought the mess in Washington couldn't get any messier" was the way an exasperated Washington Post editorial began, while a columnist in The Examiner pronounced the wrangling on Capitol Hill "almost a parody of Washington dysfunction."
So what else is new? Last month it was the failure of the so-called Supercommittee to agree on a package of budget cuts that was said to epitomize the federal establishment's fecklessness. In the spring and summer it was the protracted fight over the federal debt ceiling and Standard & Poor's downgrade of US Treasury bonds. Before that there were the polarizing confrontations over stimulus spending, financial-industry regulation, and Barack Obama's massive health-care overhaul.
Two years ago Newsweek was lamenting that partisan politics had turned this nation into "America the Ungovernable." The liberal newsweekly was in a lather over the political forces conspiring "to prevent President Obama from running the country effectively," and was upset in particular because Massachusetts had just elected a Republican, Scott Brown, to the US Senate. That meant another vote for the GOP's "agenda of pure nihilism," Newsweek fumed, and more of the "political impotency that has come to define the United States in the 21st century."
These days liberals think rather better of Brown, who has positioned himself as the Senate's least conservative Republican and who issues statements condemning "gridlock and partisanship" as "disgusting." When Brown broke with House Republicans over the payroll-tax extension last week, Doris Kearns Goodwin sang his praises on MSNBC: "If there were more Scott Browns … then perhaps this partisanship would not be as dysfunctional as it is because he's able to cross party lines."
Of course "this partisanship" would also be less "dysfunctional" if more Democrats decided to cross party lines. It takes two political parties to bring Congress to a standstill, after all. Either one can always speed up the legislative process by yielding to the other.
But our democratic republic wasn't designed for speed or legislative efficiency.
The Framers of the Constitution never expected Congress to clear the decks for sweeping presidential action. They weren't troubled by fears that America would be rendered "ungovernable" by the ease with which new laws or major policy changes could be delayed or derailed. What the smart set bewails today as "gridlock" or "brinksmanship" or an "agenda of pure nihilism," the architects of the American system regarded as indispensable checks and balances. They knew how flawed human beings can be, and how ardently propelled by their passions and ideals.
That was why they regarded restraint -- not speed, not deference to presidents, not bipartisan cooperation, not administrative expertise, not popular opinion -- as the linchpin of their constitutional plan. "Impressions of the moment may sometimes hurry [Congress] into measures which itself on mature reflection would condemn," Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 73. They may not have envisioned Supercommittees, Gallup polls, or MSNBC. But they knew that presidents and lawmakers would always be under pressure to act too fast, do too much, decide too quickly.
So it was essential, Hamilton said, that hurdles and roadblocks be incorporated into the constitutional structure -- "to increase the chances in favor of the community against the passing of bad laws through haste, inadvertence, or design." True, that might sometimes hold up needed change. But "the injury which may possibly be done by defeating a few good laws will be amply compensated by the advantage of preventing … bad ones."
The system was meant to be frustrating, and frustrating many have found it. Just this year, North Carolina's governor suggested that congressional elections be "suspended" for two years, so lawmakers could act without fear of being rebuked at the polls. It would be "very tempting," President Obama mused in July, "to bypass Congress, and change the laws own my own."
Such frustration is understandable. It is also one of the safeguards of American liberty. Our constitutional republic has thrived for more than two centuries, but it might never have done so without the "gridlock" and "dysfunction" we love to hate.