Overcoming governmental paralysis

OVERCOMING GOVERNMENTAL PARALYSIS…. Fred Hiatt’s latest column ponders the question of whether American democracy is “in paralysis.” I don’t agree with every word of the piece — in fact, some elements strike me as wildly off-base — but his conclusion resonated with me.

[M]ost of us would welcome common-sense improvements in health-care delivery and insurance — but the system feeds on and exacerbates our differences. The advent of the 60-vote rule in the Senate has magnified the already formidable checks and balances built into the Constitution, with the disproportionate blocking power it awards small and rural states. Cable television and the Internet have empowered those with the greatest intensity of feeling. The self-serving redistricting habits of the political elite, designed to protect incumbents, have left most legislators vulnerable only to primary challenges from the extremes of their respective parties.

Whichever explanation appeals to you — and no doubt they all contain some truth — the perception of paralysis increases the urgency of passing health-care reform. Failure would damage the Obama presidency, and it would also deepen the fear, here and abroad, that America is stuck.

Paradoxically, though, it also increases the urgency of doing health-care reform right. If Congress and the administration manage only to extend expensive new benefits, without improving the health-care system or controlling rising costs, it will be an achievement — but not one that will long reassure anyone concerned about the U.S. ability to get things done.

This sounds about right. There’s a growing fear that our political system simply can’t function in a problem-solving capacity anymore. Given the enormity of the challenges the country faces, paralysis is a devastating condition to find ourselves in.

Looking back, there have been situations in which policymakers simply lack the wherewithal to identify the problems that surround them. That’s not where we find ourselves. There have been other situations in which policymakers can identify the problems, but have no idea how to fix them. That’s not where we find ourselves, either.

Instead, we know exactly what the challenges are, and have a pretty strong sense of what needs to be done, but are burdened by a process that can’t approve the necessary solutions.

There are a variety of underlying changes that have exacerbated the paralysis, including, but not limited to, the abandonment of majority rule in the Senate; the descent of a major political party into right-wing madness; and the tribulations of American political journalism.

But the result is the same: a dysfunctional system that struggles mightily to adopt solutions to huge challenges, even when one party controls the levers of power.

Passing an imperfect-but-meaningful health care reform bill would demonstrate that our institutions can still take on a task and achieve a desired goal. To be sure, it would be a welcome development for the broken health care system, but it might also inspire some confidence in a political system that needs to get un-stuck.