AIF Blog

Youth Report: On Fixing Congress

Aug 09, 2014

Joe Manchin

As part of an initiative to broaden our audience and share ideas across several generations, we invited a range of high school students and recent graduates to join us at this year's Festival. The Youth Report blog series was born out of interviews these enterprising students did with several AIF speakers. We’re thrilled to share their voices here.

By Dede Heldfond, Georgetown University, Class of 2018

I joined Senator Joe Manchin and former congressmen Dan Glickman and Mickey Edwards to discuss current state of political gridlock in Washington. They discussed the causes of our current, unproductive political system and possible solutions to return it resilience and prosperity.

For months now, Americans have seen the repercussions of having an ineffective congress, but interestingly, congressman Glickman actually suggested that congress is functional because it does function as the system was set up by the founding fathers. The flaws in our political system are not a result of our current congress, but rather the inherent nature of the checks and balance system in place. Instated by our forefathers, the creation of a legislative, executive and judicial branch made sense to prevent any one side from gaining supreme power. However, our country was thereby established to not work well because our political system has one food on the break and one foot on the gas at all times.

The pressing question is actually how America was so successful for hundreds of years, when its political system was set up to create stalemate. The group suggested that the dramatic lack of productivity of our country’s government is a result of lack of trust and lack of desire to achieve a common good among Americans and more specifically their elected representatives. While our congress is actually functioning properly, Americans today don’t have legislative leaders, but rather they have party leaders.

The idea of congressmen being party leaders is exactly why congress functions so inefficiently compared to the past hundreds of years. The stark division of political parties in America is to blame for the lack of progress being made in Washington. It was suggested that congress used to collaborate as a high performance team and recently we’ve only seen members think as individuals. At the root of the issue is the fact that congress members are expected to campaign for their political party and compete against one and other. There is a constant fear that members are conspiring to take one and others seats and therefore, there is an immense lack of trust among the members of congress. Campaigns must be redesigned to build trust and maintain ethical standards. For the first time ever, Senator Manchin introduced the Ethics Violation Bill, which would make it impossible for senators to campaign against each other and attempt to rebuild a sense of unity in Washington.

Furthermore, it is no news to anyone that the amount of money required to produce a competitive campaign is in the millions. So not only are American politicians always consumed by fundraising efforts, they also expected to accept money from people who aim to gain access and power rather than discuss the pressing political issues. As a result, politicians end up acting as puppets campaigning for their party rather than their actual political beliefs. Moreover, thanks to Citizens United, introduced in January 2010, there is absolutely no transparency when it comes to the money given to political campaigns. In today’s twisted world, money equals speech, and big money equals big speech. It is crucial that campaigns fully disclose where the money is coming from and use it responsibly, but this will not happy without a massive push on the behalf of American citizens.

So I had the chance to chat with former congressman Dan Glickman after the session. I asked him, if money is really driving politics these days, where is the sweet spot between having enough money to run a successful campaign and having too much that you become unrelatable to the average American? The congressman’s response: “Its tricky!” Glickman continued saying, “as much as you’d like to be the abstract, hypothetical citizen and run without any money and just think people will like you, that’s not realistic either. As Sam Rayburn once said, ‘money is the mothers milk of politics.’ Unfortunately, money has also become the cottage cheese, cream cheese and the yogurt and everything else as well.” His suggestion: “What you have to do, is remember that money is no substitute for grassroots political activity. So that means, personal campaigning, door to door campaigning, use of social media, the kinds of things where you get your personal messages out.” Furthermore, the congressman assures us that, “You can do both.” For example, it is important to raise the money for television to get known, but “politicians that avoid personal campaigning are making a terrible mistake in this modern society. The more we have the politics on anonymity, where [voters] don’t know you, they just see you on a television screen, it becomes very destructive to our political system. There’s an old song, To Know You is to Love You, and that’s kind of true and I hope that that becomes more the norm in politics.