Washington, D.C., doesn't work these days. On that there is a rare bipartisan consensus.
Many conservatives relish that reality with President Obama in office, reveling in government gridlock. They felt less enamored with political paralysis during the George W. Bush years. The Democrats are no more consistent in their situational view.
To be sure, the United States goes through periodic bouts of anxiety that the country is ungovernable. Yet that doesn't lessen the reality that government, at least on the federal level, responds to big challenges only if there's a crisis.
This is obvious to foreign observers such as the Chinese, who believe their authoritarian system is better able to take bold action in the global economy.
The argument that Washington rarely has put aside partisan considerations when the stakes are big is wrong. In 1978, a weakened president, Jimmy Carter, proposed an unpopular pact, a treaty turning the Panama Canal over to Panamanian control. The Senate Republican leader, Howard Baker of Tennessee, knowing the stakes, supported the president, securing passage of a treaty that has been vital for U.S. relations with that hemisphere.
Can anyone imagine Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., doing that today?
It's tough to argue that as divisive as the issues are, the stakes are higher than a generation ago. Yet polarization has increased.
Congressional Quarterly, which tracks such data, reports that in the 1960s and 1970s, almost party-line votes used to account for about one-third to 40 percent of the tallies in the House; in the past couple of years, it's been between 50 and 60 percent.
Nolan J. McCarty, a Princeton University political scientist who's written a book on polarization, found, based on congressional votes, that Democrats are more liberal than 40 years ago and Republicans are much more conservative.
A major cause is redistricting, which overwhelmingly creates heavily partisan districts to the benefit of the politicians who are drawing these boundaries; incumbency protection is the priority. If pressure were built nationally and locally for independent redistricting commissions, it might produce both better results and a Congress with more members willing to reach across the political aisle.
The same polarization is true in the Senate, with an added impediment: the filibuster. It was in 1919 that the Senate first required a two-thirds vote to cut off unlimited debate, with the expectation that it would be used only for issues of great import.
For most of the ensuing 50 years, that was the case. During the entirety of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, 12 years, there were only four cloture votes to cut off a filibuster. Last year there were 39 cloture votes, and more filibusters.
The limit was changed to 60 votes in 1975. Over the past couple of years, Republicans in the Senate have abused this process to routinely filibuster Obama's nominations and any legislation of any consequence.
There probably is a case to be made that would weaken the reality that a supermajority is necessary to do business in the Senate. That will take a while.
In the meantime, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., should call the Republicans' bluff and make them talk around the clock and on weekends. Soon, even these politicians might get embarrassed.