“Our debt is greater than all the goods and services the United States produces in a given year,” Dr. Kyle Kopko, assistant professor of political science and director of the pre-law program and legal studies, said at his presentation “Government Shutdowns and Polarizing Politics: Is this the New Normal in Washington?” on Tuesday, Feb. 18.
Kopko’s lecture, as a part of the Presidential Community Enrichment Series, addressed governmental shutdowns and the increasing polarization in Congress. The government shutdown in October 2013 was the third longest government shutdown in history, lasting over two weeks. The reason for this, Kopko said, is largely due to greater polarization within Congress and the government as a whole. “This is the most polarized Congress we have ever seen,” Kopko said.
One reason for the polarization is due to the increasing national debt. Kopko stated that currently America owes just over 14 trillion dollars, a greater debt than at any other point in US history. He further demonstrated this point by pulling up what is known as the debt clock, which showed that each citizen would need to pay $54,000 to end the national debt. However, excluding those who do not pay taxes, the individual would need to pay $150,000. Kopko said that the debt to GDP (gross domestic product) ratio is currently higher than it has been since World War II.
The national debt has caused unrest among many people, and the discontentment is aimed toward Congress. “The highest approval rating I’ve seen over the past year [for Congress]: 13 percent,” Kopko said. In one poll taken, people said that they preferred Congress to North Korea, communism and playground bullies; however, people also said they prefer brussel sprouts, root canals, head lice, Genghis Khan and cockroaches above Congress. Kopko further stated that this may also be due to the fact that the 112th Congress has been the least productive Congress since nearly World War II times.
This lack of productivity relates back to polarization within Congress. Kopko presented various reasons as to why the large gap between the two political parties exists. One reason he gave was the shortage of moderates within Congress. “We have fewer moderates than at any point in over 100 years,” Kopko said. “We’re seeing fewer and fewer people willing to reach across the aisle.” By this, Kopko meant that many within Congress refuse to compromise or have the same opinion as a member of the opposite party.
One solution Kopko proposed to this issue was congressional meetings behind closed doors with no media coverage or leaking of information. This would prevent congressional members from worrying about their popularity if they compromise with the opposing party. Kopko stated that he has often shared this solution with his classes in American government, and students initially reacted negatively. However, Kopko then stated that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 followed this pattern and the Constitution has since been successful for the country.
The funding behind congressional campaigns has also caused polarization in Congress. The number source of congressional funding comes from individuals outside of the district of the candidate they fund. Kopko stated that this is problematic because those who feel strongest about a particular party will give money to whichever candidate or Congressman who shares their view. This also contributes to there being fewer moderates in Congress.
Kopko provided a possible solution to this problem as well. He stated that reforming the campaign process so that the campaigns are publicly rather than privately funded may help. However, this solution has a flaw, Kopko said. “I don’t think many people would enjoy giving money to our politicians so that they can run their own campaigns,” he added. “Just making an educated guess.”
A third factor that has contributed to polarization is party leaders increasingly making decisions for the party as a whole. “Historically, Congress was a very decentralized group,” Kopko said. However, in recent years, the leaders of the party have made more and more of the decisions, leading to centralized leadership in Congress. The solution to this would be great public engagement. “At the end of the day, sovereignty in the United States rests on the voters,” Kopko said.