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Friday, October 09, 2015
  • Wednesday, September 16, 2015 8:27 PM

    With a presidential election year fast approaching, we’re in for a lot of public talk about the state of American democracy. Much of that discussion will be insightful and thought-provoking, but there’s a good chance you’ll also find a lot of it vague and hard to pin down.

    There’s a reason for this. Even our political leaders, the people who are most familiar with the system’s workings, have a hard time describing it.

    In fact, they even have a hard time labeling it. Ours is not actually a pure democracy: it’s more accurate to say that we live in a “representative democracy” in which the people delegate authority to their elected representatives.

    No single feature defines this system. The people are sovereign and consent to be governed through regular participation in the elections that decide who will represent us. Yet elections don’t define our republic, either; there are plenty of countries around the world whose elections are used to distort democracy.

  • Thursday, September 03, 2015 12:15 AM

    A couple of months ago, the Congressional Budget Office issued a sobering report on the U.S. economy’s long-term prospects. Not to put too fine a point on it, we’re headed for the fiscal rocks.

    Federal spending accounts for about 20 percent of the nation’s GDP, the budget analysts note; if current trends continue, that will rise to fully 25 percent by 2040. Revenues will not keep up — they’ll amount to only 19 percent of GDP.

  • Wednesday, August 19, 2015 11:11 PM

    The campaigning for next year’s elections is starting to draw more attention, and with it comes a focus on voters and their mood. Which is all well and good, but it leaves out of the equation one large bloc of citizens: people who are eligible to vote, but don’t.

    Over the years, a fair number of people I’ve encountered have confessed that they do not vote — and I often surprise them by pressing them on why they don’t. They give a multitude of reasons.

    The most common is that they’re too busy, or that voting takes too much time. Plenty also say they’re turned off by politics, politicians and anything having to do with government. “What difference does it make?” they’ll ask. Or they’ll argue that money has so corrupted the political system that they want no part of it.

  • Wednesday, August 05, 2015 10:26 PM

    The most important function Congress serves is to debate and pass the federal budget. I know – It also levies taxes, imposes or relaxes regulations, and once in a while nudges our social, economic or political order in a meaningful way. But the budget tells the government what to do and makes it possible to do it. Everything else follows from that.

    Even at the best of times, passing a budget is a test of Congress’s abilities. And these aren’t the best of times. Its two houses are controlled by Republicans who don’t see eye to eye. The White House is in the hands of a Democratic president who really doesn’t agree with them.

  • Wednesday, July 22, 2015 11:33 PM

    Before the ins and outs of the 2016 presidential contest become a preoccupation for many of us, it seems a good time to step back and look at the office of the presidency for which so many candidates are vying. The presidency inherited by whoever wins next November will be substantially changed from the position his or her predecessors occupied a few decades ago.

    The President is now the chief — and sometimes the sole — actor in American government. He far outweighs the other so-called “co-equal” branches. The media covers the White House extensively, and the other branches much less so. People don’t expect Congress or the Supreme Court to solve the country’s problems. Instead, they look to the President for initiatives, for remedies, and increasingly — and sadly — to serve as a de facto pastor to the nation when we confront a tragedy.

  • Wednesday, July 08, 2015 9:28 PM

    The presidential election is 16 months away, but already we’re smack in the middle of the usual media scrum of campaign coverage, prognostication and strategizing by many of us who have nothing much to do with the real campaigns. I’ve been following the rhetoric of both parties, and there are a few points that stand out enough to tell us something about what we have to look forward to.

  • Wednesday, June 24, 2015 8:46 PM

    Members of Congress get categorized in all sorts of ways. They’re liberal or conservative; Republican or Democrat; interested in domestic affairs or specialists in foreign policy.

    There’s one very important category, though, that I never hear discussed: whether a member wants to be an inside player or an outside player. Yet where members fall on the continuum helps to shape the institution of Congress.

  • Wednesday, June 10, 2015 8:08 PM

    I spend a fair amount of time talking to students and other young people about Congress and politics in general, and I’ve noticed something. It used to be that I’d regularly get asked how one runs for office. Nowadays, I rarely do.

    This is a young generation that is famously leery of politics. Every year, the Harvard Institute of Politics surveys young Americans about their attitudes. In their most recent survey, only 21 percent of respondents considered themselves politically engaged. Last year, only a third counted running for office “an honorable thing to do” — compared to 70 percent who considered community service honorable.

  • Wednesday, May 27, 2015 8:59 PM

    A few weeks ago, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia made a small splash in the press when he took Congress to task for failing to authorize our nation’s ongoing war against Islamic militants. “The silence of Congress in the midst of this war is cowardly and shameful,” he said. “[T]his Congress, the very body that is so quick to argue against President Obama’s use of executive power... allows an executive war to go on undeclared, unapproved, undefined and unchecked.”

    Those were strong words, meant to spur Congress to action. Yet after a day or two, they sank without a trace. No one in the media picked up the call. No one in a position to influence the Senate or the House made a move to advance a congressional war authorization.

  • Wednesday, May 13, 2015 10:25 PM

    There have been encouraging signs on Capitol Hill of late that Congress’s long slide into irrelevance may be slowing.

    Agreements on Medicare reimbursements in both houses, and on Iran, No Child Left Behind, Pacific trade and other issues in various committees led last month to a chorus of relieved approval both in Washington and in the press. Less noticed, but equally important, a report from the Bipartisan Policy Center found that Congress worked more during the first quarter of this year than the past few years, and that the amendment process in the Senate is once again functioning as it’s supposed to.

    But let’s not go overboard. Major challenges lie immediately ahead, chief among them how Congress handles the budget. Politicians on Capitol Hill are coming more to agreement. Modest bills are being passed. And we have a taste of bipartisanship. If Congress finds that it likes feeling productive, then I’ve got some suggestions for turning these first, tentative steps into full-blown progress.


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