Dysfunctional Congress: a foreigner’s view

Both my futuristic novels and this blog often have themes related to governance, and the difficulties that arise when people in positions of influence set off with their own agendas and put everybody else’s interests to one side. One of the oddities is that the US Constitution effectively encourages this bizarre dysfunctional behaviour. Some may think that if the Founding fathers could see what is going on now, they would be horrified, but I doubt it. I think they would understand completely.

One of the points I have tried to make in my futuristic novels is that the behaviour of such “important people” tends to be determined by the system under which they operate. Now, if the people who will use a system are those who design it, they tend to design it to retain as much importance and influence for themselves. The problem for the United States of America was that initially the various states were not that united, other than they spoke a common language and they had got rid of a common “colonial master”. They all considered themselves as emerging countries, and while they united, the federal element was always shaky and the individual states wanted to ensure they kept as many rights for themselves as possible. Accordingly, we get the Senators and the Representatives embedded in a system that gives them quite remarkable ability to assert themselves, but unfortunately often in a destructive fashion. What we see now is probably how the system was designed to operate: to do as much as possible to restrain Federal power. In this light, it may be recalled that the second US President, John Adams, one of the men who was as responsible as anyone for having a United States, had his presidency continually undermined by Jefferson. If people of this stature and who had devoted so much effort to the common cause of creating the United States could not work together under this system, is it such a surprise that this lot cannot? Certainly I have seen little evidence from any of them for me to consider them as an equal to Jefferson or Adams in just about any way at all.

Nevertheless, this particular outburst is disappointing. Think of the logic of the situation. During the election, when Obamacare came up for discussion, it was shown that Romney had, as governor, already introduced something very similar (call it Romneycare) and it had increased healthcare efficiency (patient benefits per unit cost) by several tens of a percent. Now, in logic, either Romneycare and Obamacare are more or less equivalent or they are not. If they are, then the Republicans effectively want to deny the rest of the country something that is both of Republican origin, and something that works. If they are not, why don’t they simply propose amendments to make Obamacare better? There is no evidence President Obama would turn down improvements. But no, instead they shut down certain government functions just to show how irritating they can be.

What I find particularly disappointing about this way of going about their posturing is that it is the public servants who are deemed “non-essential” who suffer. I have received an email informing me that the NASA astrobiology forum is closed for the time being. This may not seem a great loss but the public should realize that NASA has started something that I think is very important for democracy: it has invited the community to comment on and suggest what it should do in its future program. Effectively it is saying, “Hey, we’re spending your money, so tell us where to spend it, and why.” Yes, that can wait, but what happens to the NASA staff who now find themselves with no immediate income, maybe not at home (because they travel) and unable to plan? Since everything they are doing will have to be set up again, there must be a serious waste of money on little more than a political posture.

Then there are other government employees who are doing what they are doing because they believe they are doing something worthwhile. One of my colleagues in the US has posted this blog about one group of these, namely those in the Fish and Wildlife Service. I recommend that everyone read this blog and think about it. The blog is at


Such people are probably not in the highest paying jobs, and like everyone else, they probably have families, mortgages, whatever, and then this bunch of dysfunctional politicians cuts off their income just to make some sort of political point. And what particularly annoys me is the definition of “essential services”. I most certainly go along with “Air Traffic Controllers”; these simply cannot be shut down without terrible chaos. But Congressmen salaries? They cause the problem, so it is essential they are exempt from the consequences? And I wonder who decided that?