Two years ago, I traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in a youth leadership conference. Over the course of a week, I had the privilege of exploring our nation’s capitol along with a group of like-minded and incredibly motivated young adults.

Near the end of the trip, we were ushered into a row of seats in the corner of a massive, dimly lit room. The 19th-century oil paintings and gaudy upholstery struck a bizarre contrast with the electrical lighting and the freshly-vacuumed carpet.

This room, an official informed us, was the House of Representatives. The seats we now occupied were the same seats occupied by congressmen and women every day as they cast their votes to shape our nation’s laws. Many votes were cast electronically, by pushing one of three buttons marked “Yea,” “Nay” or “Present” at various voting stations around the room.

One of these stations was located on the back of the chair directly in front of me. Leaning forward, I noticed that the “Yea” button had a polished, untouched look to it; it could have been manufactured and installed that same morning. The “Present” button was used, but mostly still intact.

The “Nay” button had been worn down to a nondescript stub.

That’s an image that’s stuck with me for a while. Though it could hardly be called “concrete evidence,” it remains symbolic of the vicious gridlock that has plagued our Congress over the past decade.

Just last week, the Senate addressed this gridlock by passing measures to change the way it does business. The new measures passed, while not unanimously, by unusually wide margins. They limit the time for deliberation over nominated federal employees and require all senators to be physically present in order to initiate a filibuster. They go so far as to eliminate the filibuster from the early stages of floor debate, but not so far as to eliminate it altogether.

All in all, it’s a progressive piece of legislation, as far as inches constitute progress. But the filibuster remains intact in the final stages of debate, requiring a three-fifths majority vote to move things forward and marginalizing whatever expediency the new rules create.

In sum, it isn’t enough. While the dreaded “fiscal cliff” spending cuts have been set on the backburner for the next two months, our elected officials feel entitled to pat themselves on the backs for passing a moderate rules revision. If removing some of the more ridiculous provisions from a still-ridiculous congressional policy constitutes real achievement, it only shows how low the bar has fallen.

The problem is that your elected officials don’t represent you. The title “Representative” we bestow upon them is a grossly abused anachronism. This is a point often exploited by aspiring politicians hoping to dethrone incumbents: “I’m not a ‘Washington insider’ — I’m just like you, and I’ll work for you once I’m there.”

Only it isn’t the pundits, the lobbyists, or even the vague and nefarious “special interests” hijacking your representative’s votes. It’s not a matter of limited access or under-the-table bribes. What underlies all of that — and what is ultimately responsible for the American public’s loss of representation in its own government — is pure, uncompromising ideology.

Ideology has replaced logic as the facilitator of political decision-making. Issues are no longer considered case-by-case. There is no deep thought, no creativity, in the process of coming to vote. It does not matter if legislation is favorable or unfavorable to the majority of the American people, what matters is that it is favorable to the platform of the voting party.

Legislators who break from this increasingly polarized trend are labeled as “Independent,” a term not entirely disparaging but quite intentionally dismissive. They are effectively shut out of office by an elections process built on the polarity from which they’ve abstained.

Don’t believe it? Count the seats. Of the 100 seats in the Senate, 98 are occupied by party-affiliated members, while just two are occupied by independents. The House does not have any independents, yet they are still outnumbered by the number of vacancies (three). If having more negative space than actual congressmen doesn’t qualify a group as underrepresented, I don’t know what does.

What’s frightening is that independents are the closest things we have to free thinkers in the political process. There are few things more terrifying than a sane and otherwise rational person making a decision not because it is logical or just, but because it coincides with a set of standards categorized arbitrarily as either “liberal” or “conservative.” A platform Republican can never support abortion, but must simultaneously support capital punishment, even though this presents a clearly logical contradiction. A platform Democrat must do exactly the opposite, and the contradiction remains.

The answers are not so clearly divided. We cannot continue to pigeonhole our rhetoric as left or right, liberal or conservative, and expect to arrive at the proper conclusions more than half of the time.

No one side is entirely right, and no one side is entirely wrong. This is rapidly becoming a bold and even suicidal political statement in a country that preaches, even from its earliest stages of education, the importance of “picking a side.”

With both sides firmly entrenched, it’s time to face reality: Logistics aren’t going to save our government. More than efficiency, more than simplicity, what our 113th Congress needs is an attitude change.

Mark Strong doesn’t just want an ambidextrous government, he wants a few extra hands surgically attached.


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