The government in Washington is dysfunctional. That is one of the few things that Democrats and Republicans agree on these days. Our nation faces major challenges in dealing with such problems as continuing high unemployment, growing inequality, an aging population, climate change, deteriorating infrastructure, poorly performing schools, lack of access to affordable health care, and gun violence. Yet Congress and the president seem incapable of agreeing on policies to address these challenges or even carrying out basic functions such as producing a budget; indeed repeated confrontations over the budget and the debt ceiling in recent years have threatened to undermine an already fragile economic recovery (Mann and Ornstein 2012). But although there is widespread agreement that our national government is not working well and has not been working well for some time, there is considerable disagreement about the causes of this problem and what, if anything, can be done to remedy it.
Some scholars and observers of American politics place the blame for grid-lock almost entirely on the nation's political leaders (Fiorina and Abrams 2009). According to this view, what is happening in Washington is a break-down of representative democracy: elected officials are primarily concerned about protecting their own power and positions in Washington and fear a backlash from party leaders, talk show hosts, large financial contributors, and ideologically extreme primary voters if they are seen as cooperating with members of the opposing party (Eilperin 2006). The solution, according to this theory, is to change the rules of Congress and/or the electoral process to reduce the incentives for partisan behavior and increase the incentives for bipartisan compromise (Edwards 2012).
I believe that this elitist theory of government dysfunction is deeply flawed. Although party leaders, talk show hosts, financial contributors, and primary voters have played a role in the development of gridlock, they are not the main causes of dysfunctional government in Washington, and reforms that focus mainly on changing primary rules or congressional procedures are unlikely to be effective in reducing gridlock.