America, Only You Can Turn Gridlock Into Democracy

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South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson, who famously yelled "You lie!" at President Obama during his 2009 speech to Congress on healthcare reform. He was rebuked by members of both parties.
South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson, who famously yelled "You lie!" at President Obama during his 2009 speech to Congress on healthcare reform. He was rebuked by members of both parties.
Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC), who famously yelled “You lie!” at President Obama during his 2009 speech to Congress on healthcare reform. Members of both parties rebuked him.

When it comes to politics, one thing is on everybody’s mind: How do we end the dysfunction in Congress, stop the war between political parties and return to a day when elected officials work together for the common good? Right now, Republicans blame Democrats, who blame Republicans, some of whom blame the Tea Party Republicans for refusing to work with moderates in their party, let alone the Democrats, while progressive Democrats hold their noses when voting on middle-of-the road proposals from their own leaders. And nobody these days wants to work with President Obama, who claims that nobody wants to work with him (or have him visit their state during election season).

So it’s easy to focus on and blame politicians and political parties for our crumbling infrastructure, our failing schools, our lack of immigration reform, and throw up our hands and give up on the lot of them. But to do so would be to focus on only part of the problem. There is an elephant in the room we call our political system and it shouldn’t be ignored — the influence of special interests not just in D.C., but in our state houses as well.

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In the nation’s capital alone, more than $3 billion has been spent on lobbying Congress and Federal agencies since President Obama took office. This does not include billions each year spent on campaign contributions and unreported lobbying activities. No state legislature or state executive branch is immune from the influence of special interests or lobbying, either.

I can’t imagine any issue, association or company of any size that doesn’t employ lobbyists or exercise influence by campaign contributions or being able to gather its membership to apply pressure.

By their very nature, each of these “influencers” must adhere to a no-compromise philosophy or at least needing a major tradeoff. Can you imagine the NRA willing to compromise on any gun legislation? How about drug companies agreeing to reduce their markups? Dream on if you think any trade association or union won’t fight legislation that doesn’t offer something for them. Multiply the number of voices screaming inside the head of each politician by some 10,000 lobbyists in D.C. — or the millions of people who can flood their offices with phone calls, emails or letters — and no wonder there is gridlock.

Look in the mirror. I bet you have at least one “cause” where you feel so strongly that you would not support a candidate unless he or she agreed with you on that issue. Be it gun control, abortion, marijuana legalization or money for veterans, there is likely to be a “hot button” issue for which you will not broach any compromise. If that is the case for you, just one person, how do you expect anything to get done in Washington or within your respective statehouse?

Legal limits on lobbying or money spent on lobbying are unlikely to happen any time soon. There are free speech concerns are that idea, and besides, becoming a lobbyist after being in political office has become a natural career path. So what are we to do?

First, don’t support candidates who sign pledges not to do something under any circumstances. Such people draw lines in the sand that guarantee gridlock before they’re even elected.

Second, support having more disclosure of elected officials’ contacts with lobbyists and special interests of any type.

Third, spend time getting to know each of the candidates you’re considering. If they have a past history of listening to special interests, taking lobbyist contributions and not being willing to stand up against their own party leadership, that’s a red flag, regardless of party.

Finally, look in the mirror again. Can you be open yourself to listening to the other side, whatever the issue might be? Can you be at all more willing to compromise your own politics for the common good? If you can, and I hope you can, tell your elected officials that you expect the same attitude out of them. Ron Fournier recently wrote these words about the crisis in the Middle East, which are equally applicable at home:

We need to know more. We need to listen to each other, and learn from one another.