Our Constipated Congress

Similes can be misleading, but they can also be instructive. The trick is to find ones where there are many points of convergence.

My simile today is between our national legislature in Washington, and a constipated old man trying to shit.

There are several similarities here:

First, there is the difference between the way the process is supposed to work and the way it works in practice. Our national legislature is supposed to produce legislation, and every now and then it does. But it takes an extraordinary amount of dickering and arguing and horse-trading and pressures of various kinds, before a bill of any consequence is passed, and even then, the bill coming out bears little resemblance to the hopes that inspired the effort. The old man on the pot, meanwhile, is trying to pass a certain amount of fecal matter, but it takes an inordinate amount of grunting and groaning and straining, and as likely as not the result is some pathetic dingleberry that bears little resemblance to the desired result.

Second, there is the age factor, the dysfunctionality that follows inevitably on the passage of time. A young, newly minted nation, or one that has just had a successful revolution, or is recovering from a major crisis, has a large enough body of citizens focused on national goals so that legislation that clearly supports these goals can pass easily. Over time, however, special interests worm their way to the center of the legislative process and the advocates of the national interest are submerged. Everything is tactical, and action stems not from national need but from the lowest common denominator of a host of local partisan interests. The old man, meanwhile, can remember his youth, when peristalsis, the involuntary squeezing action of his lower gut, governed the process, and he shat with the alacrity and ease of a goose. No more, alas, he is forced to straining and clenching the inadequate abdominal muscles he still controls, to little effect.

Finally, there is the nature of remedial action. War has a galvanizing effect on the nation’s propensity to act decisively. During most of the past century, whenever our national legislature began to forget its central function and descend into least common denominator politics, a major war came along and galvanized our national vital processes. It is similar to the galvanizing effect that a powerful laxative has on the gut of our old man. It was applied twice in the first half of the last century, on the national level, and it worked so well that it has been used over and over again, to the extent it has become both habit forming and ineffective. Our old man, meanwhile, has overused the laxative route but remains hooked on it, even though it doesn’t work any more.

More exercise and a better diet, including lots of liquids, are what our old man needs. Our national legislature could do with a new approach to Congressional redistricting and some new rules about campaign financing, to start with just a couple of a long list of possible remedial actions. But neither is likely to happen. The old man is too hooked on his present ways to change, and so is our Congress. The old man will die one of these days, and if it takes another national convulsion to convert Congress, well, that will happen too. So it goes. The world keeps on turning, while people live and die, and empires rise and fall.

Carl Coon 7/29/10

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