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Three resolutions to reform Washington

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 9:08 AM EST, Mon January 2, 2012
Julian Zelizer says the new year should prompt rethinking by America's political leaders.
Julian Zelizer says the new year should prompt rethinking by America's political leaders.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Americans don't trust government or the politicians who run it
  • He says parties must resolve to lessen the influence of private money in politics
  • Politicians should resolve to focus campaigns on issues, policy choices, not on scandal, he says
  • Zelizer: The parties should agree on reducing procedural tricks that tie Congress in knots

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" (Times Books) and author of the forthcoming book "Governing America" (Princeton University Press).

(CNN) -- At a time when many of us are making promises to change our behavior in the new year, politicians in Washington should make some resolutions of their own.

In the past year, public disgust with the politics has intensified. The approval ratings of Congress are in the tank. The ratings of the president are much better but still low.

Americans don't trust politicians, they don't trust government, and they have no confidence in the system. In their eyes, the nation's capital reflects the worst of the nation, not the best.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

What are some resolutions to which both parties could commit?

The first would be to do something about the power of money in politics. Without campaign finance reform, the system won't change.

In the past two months, there have been two grassroots movements, one on the left and one on the right, that have rallied supporters around trenchant criticism of politicians for not listening to voters but instead paying heed to the interest groups who finance their campaigns. The Occupy Wall Street Movement talked about the power of financial elites while the Tea Party looked more at liberal interest groups such as organized labor.

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Democrats and Republicans paid lip service to these complaints. Each promised to be more responsive to this frustration. But realistically, unless the parties embrace some kind of campaign reform, these problems won't go away. The reason that politicians are under the influence of the lobbyists on K Street, rather than the interests of Main Street, is clear. Politicians need money to run their campaigns.

The situation has grown worse in the past year since the Supreme Court undercut existing regulations on corporate donations. Presidential candidates have abandoned the Watergate-era public finance system for campaigns. Independent organizations, such as Karl Rove's operation, American Crossroads, have developed sophisticated mechanisms for raising and distributing huge amounts of cash for advertising on behalf of candidates -- or against them.

One of the biggest forces in this campaign thus far have been the Super PACs, which are pouring out millions on political advertisements and taking advantage of loopholes in the federal election laws to protect the identity of their donors.

The second resolution must be for the parties to do a better job in the campaigns. This is an election year when the nation faces huge and difficult issues. The inability of private markets or the government to stimulate muscular economic growth and significantly reduce unemployment has left millions of Americans desperate.

For some, the rising deficit is a huge challenge that must be handled immediately, with the twin causes being the massive tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush and the growing fiscal cost of Medicare and Social Security. Overseas, the changes that have swept the Middle East have opened up huge questions about U.S. policy in the region.

Unfortunately, the presidential campaign, officially starting this week with the Iowa caucuses, will likely be a race to the bottom. The candidates will probably focus on character and personality without talking about policy other than in the shallowest of terms. Candidates will try to pin on each other the label of flip-flopper or dwell on the personal lives of their opponents, rather than pressing each other to address the huge problems that we face. The parties would serve the nation by truly engaging the opposition over the choices we face in coming years.

The final resolution should be for an agreement to limit the use of obstructionist tactics. Over the past year, the Republican Party has dramatically escalated the procedural battles to new levels.

In addition to the ongoing filibuster threat that grinds the Senate to a halt, forcing it to find a supermajority of 60 votes to pass a bill, and a refusal to act on many presidential appointments, we have seen the budget process turn into a national joke with routine decisions becoming subject to threat, delay and constant temporary solutions. The process seems unworkable.

Diminishing the use of procedural obstructionism does not mean some kind of nostalgia for a bygone bipartisanship. Members of both parties can stick to the party line while restoring some kind of balance to the legislative process so that members can actually vote their will. The political system in this country is delicate. While the framework has endured, it is possible to tie the legislative process into such knots that it can't do its job.

To be sure, there is little chance that politicians will adhere to these promises. Like most people who join the gyms or promise to act better, the chances of following through are minimal. It is likely that Washington will only become a tougher place in years to come. But perhaps, even for a moment, the leaders of both parties should think about what they do to America when they weaken the political system upon which we all depend.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

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