David Jolly Trump's coronavirus reaction failed America. But Congress also failed us — and it has for years.

Just as today's president abandoned the responsibilities that previously were expected of the office, today's Congress is not a serious institution.
Image: Senate Returns To Capitol Hill During Coronavirus Pandemic
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wears a mask as he passes through a hallway at the Capitol on May 4, 2020.Alex Wong / Getty Images
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By David Jolly, Former Congressman

The outbreak of COVID-19 and the threat of a global economic depression has affirmed that while the American spirit is resilient, so too is our national division. Our politics in this moment seem fundamentally broken, and from our broken politics has emerged a broken government incapable of responsibly leading the nation through this pandemic.

From our broken politics has emerged a broken government incapable of responsibly leading the nation through this pandemic.

Our presidency has been cheapened by the current occupant, and our Congress remains distracted by petty partisanship and entrenched, often blind ideology. And as voters we seemingly reward these behaviors, affirming that which supports our personal political narrative and condemning that which doesn't. We are two Americas politically, distrustful of one another and seeking advantage over the other even amid a national tragedy.

For too long we have allowed what had been a relative meritocracy in politics to devolve into a cheap reality show that rewards all the wrong things. We have allowed our leaders to rig the system in their favor, and our two major parties to conspire in protecting their duopoly. It has ignited our tribalism and has produced a president who operates with profound ignorance of both science and law, and a Congress that fails to recognize its own culpability.

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Trump was wholly unqualified for this moment. He ignored the threat of coronavirus until it was too late. He fumbled our nation's response. He misled the public. He assigned blame and claimed glory. He failed us.

But Congress failed us, too. As an institution, Congress failed to prepare for this moment, failed to identify this moment and failed to summon its broad powers to prevent this moment — Congresses both past and present, of both major parties. I know because I was there.

I served in Congress for three years, and in recent weeks I have thought about whether I was ever exposed to policy information related to the threat of a global pandemic. I do not believe I ever was. But my colleagues and I should have been. And I share responsibility with others who served and serve today for failing to recognize the threat, and for failing to reform a broken Congress. COVID-19 should be a wake-up call that Congress must change the way it works. What was once a deliberative body simply is not today.

It should anger every American that Congress today holds more fundraisers annually than it does congressional hearings. Congress typically works three- and four-day workweeks and takes off up to 20 weeks a year. In March, the Senate adjourned for more than a month.

Meanwhile, the parties' willingness to protect incumbency by rigging democracy through big data gerrymandering and government funding of closed party primaries seems to have left us without well-qualified subject matter experts with cross-partisan appeal, without leaders who carry the trust of the entire nation.

Our public health community knew of the threat and warned for years that we were unprepared for a pandemic. Our intelligence community saw the destabilization that would be caused by a pandemic. Lone voices in administrations and Congresses current and past spoke up. Our nation's watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, even published a report warning administrations, Congress and the nation that we were unprepared for an event like we're suffer from today.

Just as today's president has abandoned the responsibilities that previously were expected of the office, today's Congress is not a serious institution. Outside of robustly funding our military, the two institutions rarely focus on preparation for or the prevention of global threats, instead expecting to be rewarded by voters and pundits for their reaction once disaster strikes.

Consider how a panicked Congress spent $2 trillion in its immediate response to address COVID-19 instead of adequately investing a fraction of the cost in previous years for prevention and preparation. Consider a government that in its haste created a major small-business support program that was both drastically underfunded and written with rules so generous that sports franchises and institutions with billions of dollars in reserves could be bailed out. Consider an administration that in its ignorance cavalierly dismantled and defunded government positions designed to attend to the threat of a pandemic — but a Congress that oversaw those moves.

We need an independent commission absent elected officials to conduct a full and impartial look back at what led to this public health crisis. A commission such as that proposed by the current House Intelligence Committee chairman will rightly identify decision points missed and public health warnings ignored. But it will be insufficient if our national analysis stops there.

We must examine how our institutions of democracy — our presidency and our Congress — failed to function in the years preceding COVID-19. We must recognize that without dramatic change our institutions will fail us again in the face of the next pandemic. And we must recognize that the ultimate responsibility for change lies with us, the voters.

In January 1942, just a month after the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor and the nation entered World War II, 84 percent of the public agreed that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had done everything he could to avoid war with Japan. As American victory seemed imminent in the war, President Harry Truman had an approval rating of 87 percent.

At the dawn of the space race in 1961, when President John Kennedy was resolute that America would prevail in both science and courage, 83 percent of the nation gave him their support — despite Kennedy's concurrent fiasco at the Bay of Pigs and the Soviets having already beaten the U.S. to space by three weeks. During the first Gulf War, 89 percent of Americans approved of President George H.W. Bush, and 90 percent approved of his son after the 9/11 attacks.

Today COVID-19 has taken thousands more lives than Sept. 11 and the wars thereafter. Our economic disruption could soon rival the Great Depression of the Roosevelt's early presidency. And our national response to the pandemic has been eclipsed by that of other nation's, just as the Soviets eclipsed us in 1961.

And yet there has been no real "rally around the flag" response. Instead we have a president whose approval rating hovers around 43 percent and a Congress that the vast majority of Americans has lost total faith in.

Whether now is the time for a broad movement to reform our democracy that insists on a more accountable government, or whether we should simply demand better government from our existing major parties is a question we should each consider. The American two-party system is an outlier among today's major democracies, lacking the accountability and competition we see in other nations. Research continually shows that multiparty democracies provide greater stability, have a more satisfied electorate, generate greater engagement and accountability, and produce more legitimate and inclusive policymaking.

Even within our two party system, voters in many states are working to create greater competition and accountability by amending state constitutions to require that electoral college votes be awarded to the winner of the national popular vote; unwind partisan gerrymandering; open up primaries to all voters or defund taxpayer support of closed-party primaries; and implement ranked-choice voting. And as for the influence of big money on our national parties and national priorities, a 2019 survey found that only 1 in 5 Americans approved of today's campaign finance system.

The president failed us, and Congress failed us, too. In the face of future threats to our health and to our economy, we cannot expect that to change until we change our expectations.

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