If the debt-ceiling debacle did one good thing, it confirmed for all of us, in no uncertain terms, that our government is broken. We’ve spent many, many years yukking it up with jokes about corrupt politicians, but a stark reality should be settling over the country like a San Francisco fog at dinnertime. The debt-ceiling crisis is only the latest in a series of vignettes that illustrate not only the corruption inherent in our ailing republic, but also our representatives’ unbridled apathy toward that corruption.
Consider: after the savings and loan scandals of the 1980s, high-profile bankers went to prison. After Enron, corporate executives went to prison and Arthur Andersen ceased to exist. To date, no executives of the investment companies responsible for the 2008 financial crisis have been prosecuted. The executives at Goldman Sachs and other investment firms were on the phone with the Federal Reserve and members of Congress, holding a gun to the nation’s economy and insisting that anything less than lax regulations and enforcement would result in financial meltdown (“Look what you made me do!”).
The hurdles to reform are significant and Constitutional amendments seem necessary to fix our broken government. In the wake of Citizens United, some critics have proposed a constitutional amendment circumscribing the rights of corporations as individuals. The influence of Wall Street in the 2008 financial crisis — and Congress’ ham-handed attempts to reform the financial system — indicate that corporations are more involved than ever in keeping out senators and representatives who promise substantive change and keeping in representatives who will legislate based on what’s best for them, not what’s best for the rest of us. Removing the influence of large amounts of cash would go a long way toward reforming our broken system.
The Senate could use some restructuring, too. Accurately described as a “millionaire’s club,” the Senate is a place where legislation can be killed for good. There are few good reasons for the Senate’s continued existence; James Madison even admitted, in The Federalist 62, that one of the Senate’s reasons for existing was an accident of history: namely, that without it, the Constitution would never have been ratified. Thanks to the Senate, a collection of small states can band together to override what the majority of the country nevertheless wants.
Term limits wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. Madison saw the role of a legislator as more like jury duty than a career: a person serves as a legislator for a while, then goes back to his real job. Incumbency creates dependence on large donors for reelection, and legislators are then beholden to those donors, not to the rest of us.
Only with significant structural reform on a constitutional scale can we ensure that our government works for us, and not for an elite sliver of society whose only claim to authority is having more cash than everyone else.