Is Congress catastrophically broken, or is it doing exactly what it was designed to do?

Is Congress catastrophically broken, or is it doing exactly what it was designed to do?

Summary: What if this is a condition Adams and Jefferson coded for, and what if we're now running an error handling routine built into America's operating system?


Even so, the check and balance function is still in operation. A portion of the legislative branch -- a portion big enough to cause a ruckus -- has refused to authorize the continuing resolution until Obamacare is neutered. This is a clear case of one branch checking, balancing, and putting the brakes on another branch.

In that context, Congress is doing what it is supposed to do. If it strongly doesn't like something the executive branch is doing, it body-checks it and makes it stop. In this case, the check was rather heavy-handed, shutting down the whole government, but that's part of the design spec.

Congress is supposed to be able to shut things down if they don't like how they're going. That's the whole point of Congress, even more so than making laws. Congress is supposed to balance the power of the presidency and give the people the upper hand.

So in that context, Congress -- however ridiculous the situation seems -- is doing exactly what it was designed to do. It executed a controlled shutdown (as compared to, say, an armed rebellion with tanks in the streets).

But... it's also fair to say that the original design spec of the founding fathers has been hacked. They were around for the changing role of the vice president (and, in fact, helped cause that hack). So we could look at that simply as a bug fix put into place by Adams and Jefferson.

But political parties and gerrymandering, what of those? In the very earliest years, Adams warned against political parties -- and then embraced them. So our founding fathers, the original coders, knew that human nature was such that we would split into factions and while they didn't like the idea, they knew it was going to happen, and even went along when it became apparent there was no stopping our natural tendencies.

Political parties (even though the actual parties themselves have changed) have remained in place throughout our history. The Supreme Court has had hundreds of years to declare them unconstitutional, and -- to my eternal sadness -- never has. Political parties have been checked, weighed, and judged part of the balance of our nation.

What about gerrymandering? Surely that's not a fair practice and the Supreme Court, if it's designed to check and balance the other branches, would rule it unconstitutional. Actually, not so much. The core of gerrymandering, the ability for a state to redistrict, to redefine its districts based on population, was upheld even as recently as 1964, in Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, a Supreme court case fought over districting practices in the state of Alabama.

So, heinous as it may seem, gerrymandering, based on the system of checks and balances we have, and based on the judgment of the Supreme Court, is a legitimate practice. That means that legislators elected from gerrymandered districts are legitimate representatives in the eyes of the American electoral system.

If parties are doing what they're supposed to be doing -- or at least what Adams and Jefferson recognized they'd do no matter what -- and gerrymandering can't be considered malware, and the current legislative branch has enough votes to shut things down because they're not getting their way -- that seems like what's supposed to happen.

Congress was supposed to be a pain in the ass. The legislative branch was supposed to be a thorn in the side of the executive branch. American politics were supposed to be messy. That's the whole point of a democracy.

So whether you agree with Obamacare or not, whether you agree with the radical wing of Congress that's forcing the shutdown or not, whether you even approve of the shutdown or not -- Congress is actually doing what it's supposed to be doing.

It is living up to its design spec.

The good news here, of course, is that the design spec works well enough that if you don't agree with what's going on, then in just about thirteen months, you can replace the entire House of Representatives.

Personally, I would like to throw them all out, Democrats and Republicans. All of them. Senators, Representatives, the President, Governors, state legislators, all of them.

The system is doing what it's supposed to be doing, but our actual, elected representatives are acting like children, are causing far more damage than they're preventing, and I'm sick of them all. But that's just my one vote.

There are a few hundred million more that will be tallied up on Tuesday, November 4, 2014. Make yours count.

Topics: Government US, Government


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • zdnet's "about us"

    this is what can be found in the about us section of this site :

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    just saying...
    • Plus 1

      Peppering your editorial with tech terms doesn't make it a tech article.
      • Absolutely true

        However, this is a topic that affects everything, including tech, particularly in the country's ability to function in the world economy. Economic, after all, is pretty much what drives tech. And like it or not, we are part of a global system.

        So if it's a bit of a side bar, it's an important one and at least indirectly relevant.
  • Just remember...

    what goes around comes around. A new low precedent is being set, and one day a Republican President may find themselves on Obama's shoes.
    D.J. 43
    • I do remember

      That has already happened. Ronald Reagan found himself in worse shoes than Obama. During the Jimmy Carter years we got to experience double digit unemployment, inflation and interest rates. We had 52 hostages from our embassy in Teheran held captive for 444 days. The difference is that Reagan realized he raised his hand and asked for the job and didn't whine "it's Carters fault", he just fixed it. BTW, for those who complain about the Republicans causing the government shutdown, do your homework. Since 1976 there have been 114 days of government shutdown. Of those 114 days, 50%, 57 days, occurred during Carters presidency when the Senate, House and White House were democratically controlled. As to whether the Republicans or Tea Party are the cause of the current shutdown is another debate.

      The article displayed enough subtle political bias that I had to go looking to find out who Mr. Gewirtz was politically by who he worked for and was politically affiliated with. The search confirmed the political bias in the article. I live in California where the Democrats have Gerrymandered the whole state. So Mr. Gewirtz you failed to correctly attribute gerrymandering to the democrats too. You also failed to mention that the main objection to Obamacare is not about wanting Americans to go without healthcare, it's about how are we going to pay for another huge entitlement program. The GAO, CBO and Medicare Actuaries have done government studies of where the debt is taking us and all three come up with similar projections. Paying for social security and medicare is going to bankrupt our country. One projection bankrupts the country, ie, the cost of the entitlement programs alone will exceed the federal revenue, between 2030 and 2040. The more realistic projection places that date at 2019. The difference is driven by this, what is the law and what congress has actually done. The Balanced Budget Act of 1997 specified that Medicare payments to doctors and hospitals were to be cut by 26%. Congress has not followed the law that the Senate and House passed and the President signed and has not been found unconstitutional by SCOTUS. So, technically, the 2019 projection is more realistic because it is based on what has really happened not on what the law requires. You managed to present a discussion that subtly blamed the Republicans by the frequency of your mention of their "bad" actions. The truth is that both parties play the same type of games. For instance, in 2013, the house has sent 12 appropriations bills to the Senate. Appropriations bills are the "normal" legislative process for funding the government. Harry Reid would not allow any of them to the floor of the Senate for a vote. If those bills had passed there would be no shutdown now. Currently, there are 800,000 government employees on furlough, what the majority of media fails to mention is that 1,200,000 government employees are still working. That does not include active duty military.
      • Revisionist history

        As taught by the Fox newsish network. Anyone have time to set this straight here, go for it.
        D.J. 43
        • Please do

          The research was done on Wikipedia:

          and from living thru the Carter years and watching my disposable income destroyed by liberal, ineffective government.
          I listen to CNN more than I listen to Fox.
          Your response is a typical liberal response, disparage the messenger and no facts. If you can't do the research shut up.
          • Cooking

            It's easy to cook the facts when you do biased research. like you obviously do.
      • Actually...

        ...during both the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, many Republicans (though not the aforementioned Presidents) routinely blamed Carter and the Democrats for all the country's problems. Then Bill Clinton was elected, giving Republicans a new scapegoat.
        John L. Ries
        • Blame game

          They all want to blame someone else. Because 90% of our politicians don't have to guts to stand up and say they screwed up. Politics has become more about getting re-elected than about doing the jobs they were sent there to do in the first place. That's why there should be term limits in congress. It was never meant to be a lifetime job, serve two terms and get out. After setting out for a term or two, you can run for election again.
          • See my response to Mark Wagner

            The short answer is that I profoundly disagree.
            John L. Ries
          • Term Limits Would Help

            I agree with your statement, but dispute your estimation of the integrity and willingness to take responsibility by the current crop of politicians. I'd say it's closer to the "5 9s". The only time they do admit to any substantive mistakes is when someone puts the damning evidence in their lap and the public outcry is to the point they know they won't be re-elected anyway. It's a very sad state of affairs.
          • How would term limits help?

            In formulating your response, consider how it has worked with state legislatures and city councils and consider the pros and cons of incumbents forever chasing the next office instead of running for re-election in their current ones. Consider also the effects on partisanship.
            John L. Ries
      • A Couple Of Things

        1) The 17th is the date that all of us SHOULD be concerned about - the date when it is projected that the USA will hit the debt ceiling. Will the President or the Treasury Secretary or the Chairman of the Federal Reserve play some game to get past the date? Will debt obligations go unpaid? Will a compromise be reached?
        2) Fox is technically correct - this is not a "shutdown", it's a "slimdown", if a temporary one.
        3) Don't forget, David, that the direct election of Senators is also a more recent amendment to the Constitution that changed the way the Legislative Branch works (and, IMHO, one that should be reversed, already).
        4) The minority party for decades has said exactly the same thing that David is saying - the system is designed to provide disproportionate power to the minority. This is the so-called "tyranny of the minority". Cloture, aka filibusters, are one example of this. If you don't like it, you have a chance to fix it next year, when the entire House of Representatives and 33 of the 100 Senators are up for re-election.

        In the meantime, everybody has the responsibility to negotiate and work to resolve the situation.

        One thing I haven't heard is an explanation of what would be so bad about pushing back the individual mandate by a year, or demanding that members of the Legislative and Executive branches be required to participate in the ACA as well. Everything else has already been pushed back, so what's wrong with letting it drift? All I've heard to date is "No". Well, "no" is a great way to keep the shutdown/slimdown in place, because I don't think the Republicans are going to budge on that as their fallback position.
      • Ummm, no

        What Reagan received from Carter was puppies, kittens, and donuts compared to what Obama received from Bush. The Carter years were marked by high inflation -- which people remember -- BUT very low unemployment -- which people don't remember so much. The unemployment rate under Carter was actually the best of all Presidents the past several decades. Obama, in contrast, was handed a soaring job loss rate and a global economic crisis created by poorly regulated U.S. financial firms.

        The Internet can be a pretty cool source for good information - if you know how to use it properly.
        • Minor Correction

          The "employment" rate -- adding jobs -- was best under Carter.
      • Not quite true

        The hostages were released the day Reagan was inaugurated. Now, it may have been the Iranians fear that a new militaristic President might just attack, but it was essentially done when he took office. Nothing for him to do but bask in "mission accomplished".

        As for the shutdown during Carter's Presidency (I haven't checked, I'm taking your word for it), at least it apparently didn't happen for partisan party politics.

        A lot of the mechanism for correcting the economy was probably put in place during Carter's term, since although most people don't seem to realize it, these things don't just turn on a dime. It takes years for the effects of a change in policy to be truly felt in an economy as large as ours.

        Much of the trouble was caused by the oil embargo. Those occurred under Nixon/Ford. Not to say that was their fault (at least not entirely), but it certainly wasn't Carter's. Likely, very little of it was and he didn't have time to fix it. At least not while he was in office.

        You mention the bill about reducing Medicare costs, but fail to note that it was enacted into law under a Republican Congress and a*Democratic* President. And it was a law for much of time immediately following where both the executive and legislative branches were controlled by the Republican party. Who apparently didn't follow through. And no, I don't know how much of that was due to Democratic resistance. But anyone can toss select facts around.

        I'll point out that lowering payments to doctors and hospitals is a knee jerk reaction to the problem. While they share some of the blame, the need is to reduce *real* costs, not just the government's. They are businesses, if ones with a special responsibility, and they do need to make money.

        The problems we face aren't simple, so the solutions aren't simple. The partisan behavior of both parties factor in and that we keep electing the usual cast of idiots into office adds to it. Our appetite for foreign-produced goods (many non-essential), while not being willing to pay Americans to do the work to make things here is another part of the equation. The greed of corporations and their ability to influence the public and the politicians is yet another. All of these are in a circle feeding the other elements.

        These and other issues are the result of human nature, as noted in the column. While some see this as a issue with one party or another, it isn't. Both parties' platforms are skewed towards unreality.

        When I was much younger, I learned about the concept of enlightened self-interest. Doing the right thing for altruistic reasons is nice, but at least realize that everything we do affects the system. As an example, corporations tend to like to lower prices by lowering staffing levels and/or worker pay (sometimes by moving work out of the country). Except 2/3 of the economy is built on consumption. So what does that do to purchases? Of course, they try to move into other markets, but that has to end somewhere. Ideally, our leaders would be presenting things to people to encourage them to work towards a common mutually beneficial goal. That's too hard, so they take the easy way out and try to appeal to their base.

        For the amount of government still active, I'm not sure where you get your news. I do see a focus on the people furloughed. But I see substantial mention of those remaining on the job.

        Just a mention about SCOTUS. I've had less and less respect for them as the partisan nature of the Justices became more apparent. I lost what little I had left when they voted to allow the taking of property by eminent domain of those properties in Connecticut for economic purposes. They say it didn't violate the Constitution. I say it violated the very *heart* of the document.
  • the obamacare must be abolished

    because this is the will of the people.
    The devilcrats must listen and comply with the popular demands made by GOP!
    LlNUX Geek
    • Sadly it won't the welfare mob outnumbers the productive

      the dems have their slaves back and now they are voting.
      • this is why only the net tax payers

        should be allowed to vote, not all the bums!
        LlNUX Geek