Our Dysfunctional Congress

Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History.  His job is to advocate before Congress on behalf of history.  In the November Perspectives of History, White explains what frustrates him about his job.  Here is a small taste: 

Not surprisingly, just 12 percent of Americans now approve of the way Congress is handling its job, matching its all-time low, recorded in October 2008 at the height of the economic crisis, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, which was released on September 16. Only 6 percent of registered voters say that most members of Congress have earned re-election. And President Obama’s disapproval ratings are hovering in the low 50 percent range, the worst of his presidency.

The American people are clearly fed up. So the collective response appears to be “throw the bums out.” Well they’ve done that three times over the past four years. They elected a Democratic president to replace a Republican one and control of the House and Senate has flip-flopped between the Republicans and the Democrats.

Like a hyperactive child the body politic seems to be craving immediate gratification. They see problems that have festered for years such as deficit spending, the collapse of the real estate market, lack of a coherent energy policy, and underperforming schools, and demand that their representatives in Congress and the president to fix them right away or suffer the consequences. Incumbency and the ability to look out for constituents that went with seniority that used to be considered an asset is now a liability.

One could argue that a general lack of knowledge of history and civics have contributed mightily to the deterioration of public discourse and the ability of our elected officials at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to do their jobs. Even a rudimentary knowledge of how Congress works shows that all great legislative achievements in our nation’s past have required serious compromise from both sides of the aisle. They also needed—as the founders clearly intended—a slow and deliberate legislative process. Obviously, the larger the challenge, the more likely it is that a bipartisan solution is needed.

Earlier this year, The Nation’s Report Cards assessing knowledge of U.S. history, civics and geography by students in Grades 4, 8, and 12 showed students at all three levels generally performing at or below proficiency levels in all three subject areas. For example, in 2010, over half (55 percent) of high school seniors performed below the Basic achievement level in U.S. history.

“The report cards in civics and U.S. history, adds to a picture of stagnating or declining overall achievement among U.S. students in the social sciences.” said David P. Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP.

Despite the evidence and awareness of the problem of civic illiteracy, it appears that subjects like history and civics will be further marginalized when one considers the proposals on the table in the House and Senate to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).