Award-winning Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein spoke on increasing polarization in Congress and ways to fix systemic problems within the government in a lecture titled “Why Washington is Horrible (In Charts)” Tuesday night.
“Americans agree. Congress is horrible,” he said. “Congressional polarization has never been as high as it is now.”
"You don'thave to agree that things are working badly," he added. "The only thing that is fundamentally true is, no matter where you are on the political spectrum, American politics has, in important and fundamental ways, changed in the last couple of decades.”
He said that while the founding fathers designed the U.S. government so it would be difficult to make quick structural changes or pass new legislation, they did not envision the need for a supermajority.
If James Madison or Alexander Hamilton wanted a filibuster, they would have made one, Klein said. From the New Deal to Vietnam, parties have abstained from filibustering each other, Klein said, but the practice has now become commonplace. Polarization, a phenomenon absent in those times, has fundamentally changed the way Congress operates for the worse, he said.
Citing Texas U.S. Congressman Pete Sessions, Klein explained that the purpose of the majority — in Congress and in other domains of life — is to govern, but the purpose of the minority is to become the majority in American politics. In spite of this, there is no incentive for the minority to cause failure for the majority, he said.
“It makes sense for the minority to have the incentive to see the majority fail but not the power to make them fail,” Klein said.
To explain the notion that the minority never wants the majority to fail, Klein provided an analogy to his household with his wife and two terriers. He said that while he is the minority in his household and he has the ability to destroy the life of his household at any moment, that is not something he wants to do.
“I could leave here now and drop the mic and go and blow our savings on hookers,” Klein said by way of illustration.
Polarization in Congress has sharply reduced the amount of legislation passed, Klein said, which could have very negative consequences. The White House does not have much power to fix these problems of government; instead, the impetus for change must come from Congress, he said.
Klein outlined several ways the problems in the government could be fixed. Among these options is the elimination of the debt ceiling, an institutional mechanism that he compared to a ticking time bomb. He also suggested that Congress could improve the way government operates by making it easier for majorities to vote, undo gerrymandering and get rid of the filibuster.
Klein currently works as a blogger and columnist for The Washington Post, a columnist for Bloomberg View and a contributor to MSNBC. He manages the “Wonkblog” at The Washington Post, where his writing focuses largely on health care and budget policy. Klein formerly wrote and blogged for the political magazine The American Prospect.
“The core of my work is in blogging. It’s the stuff I love the most,” Klein said of his passion for blogging. He said that blogging doesn’t restrict journalism in ways that print or even broadcast journalism limit the number of words that a journalist can write.
“I am free from the fundamental of scarcity of journalism, of pages,” he said.
The lecture and subsequent question-and-answer took place in Whig Hall. The event was sponsored by the American Whig-Cliosophic Society.