Bryan: Does Government Work?

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(HOST) When commentator Frank Bryan looks at our Federal government, he sees a paradox – one that was intentionally created by our founding fathers.

(BRYAN) In a few days I will step before a class of 240 students at the University of Vermont and open with a question – the same question I asked about 20 students 46 years ago when I began my teaching career in the Northeast Kingdom.

"Does the American government work?"

The answer…

"Yes. It was designed not to work and as such is working perfectly."

We created our government not to translate national mandates into law but to protect ourselves from national mandates. Thus we divided and balanced and checked and complicated and obscured.

All this is pretty well known.

What is not appreciated, however, is that this basic structural intent of the founders has not changed.

We still have no national election – every two years we elect only a portion of those we send to Washington. Never is there a current majority to respond to the people’s will.

The Senate remains profoundly undemocratic. Vermont can veto California. The two houses of Congress can veto each other. The President can veto the Congress. The Court can veto both.

Consider national health care. Clinton wrote a bill and submitted it to Congress, where special interests destroyed it. .

Obama let the legislature write a bill to be submitted to him. Again the special interests prevailed – even the insurance companies.

In both cases our government worked according to plan.

We probably will have a health care bill. But we will not have national health care. Worse (depending on your point of view) the moment may have passed. We are already in the next election cycle. And the scramble of compromises being produced may give national health care a bad name.

The founders would be amazed and astounded at the expansion of the policy-making agenda in Washington. 90% of it did not exist prior to FDR – health, welfare, education, housing – even the size of the helmets in the NFL.

The machinery in place to turn these issues into law, however, would be perfectly familiar to the founders. They built it.

Herein lays the nation’s most fundamental dilemma.

In terms of expectations, we have created a national democracy. In terms of the political machinery to make good on these expectations, we have retained a federated central government hamstrung by checks and balances – a government designed for inaction.

We are trying to run the Daytona 500 in a Model A Ford.

I have been making this point in my classrooms for 45 years.

Each year it becomes easier.
Under these conditions that breed disappointment, cynicism and even despair, how long can the center hold?

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