Avoiding D.C.'s Dysfunction

Sandra Fluke is saying thanks but no thanks to running for Congress.

Sandra Fluke speaks during the Democratic National Convention on Sept. 5, 2012, at Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C.

Sandra Fluke gained notoriety in 2012 when House Republicans refused to let her testify at a hearing on the Affordable Care Act.

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Sandra Fluke – yes, the one who was berated by conservative shock jock Rush Limbaugh due solely to Limbaugh’s inability to understand how oral contraception works – announced today that she will not run for retiring Rep. Henry Waxman’s, D-Calif., congressional seat. She had been entertaining that possibility, but decided to run for the California state senate instead. And honestly, who can blame her?

Being in Congress, at the moment, means being part of a body in which it’s considered a noteworthy bipartisan victory to spend three tumultuous years producing a farm bill that hurts the poor – by cutting $8 billion out of food stamps – while continuing to hand out huge wads of money to big agribusinesses. It means seeing every effort to get the most minimal of gun control measures across the finish line stymied, even after 20 schoolchildren are mowed down by a madman in Connecticut. And it means spending the years after a major recession debating how much should be cut from the federal budget, when economists say that question is precisely backwards.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

California, meanwhile, is far from perfect, but at least there Fluke would have a fighting chance of doing some good. Consider: California recently approved a gradual increase in the minimum wage to $10. The state is expanding access to reproductive health care, when many other states are doing the reverse. In fact, California’s 2013 law to expand abortion access was the first such law anywhere in the country since 2006. In reaction to widespread abuses on the part of the mortgage and banking industries, the Golden State passed a Homeowner’s Bill of Rights. Last year, California also became the third state to adopt a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.

In Washington, meanwhile, structural forces like the filibuster have combined with an unprecedented level of Republican intransigence to grind action to a halt, as the GOP concluded that opposing literally everything President Obama and the Democrats proposed was a viable path to electoral victory. In response, Obama has decided to go it alone, assembling a piecemeal agenda of small-ball actions and half-measures that he can implement via executive order, essentially leaving Congress to its own devices.

It’s perhaps telling that, in a briefing before the State of the Union that I attended, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was all but resigned to the fact that the House was going to move on nothing for the foreseeable future. She said: “The speaker said today, ‘if the president keeps doing executive orders, he’s going to hit a brick wall.’ Yeah! That’s why he’s doing executive orders, because there is a brick wall here, and there has been for a while.”

[See a collection of political cartoons on the tea party.]

As I said before, this is partly the fault of House Republicans, who have made the political calculation that allowing Congress to do nothing is the way to win elections and who are dealing with a tea party wing convinced that any compromise renders one a socialist. But it’s also due to a system that is biased in favor of inaction and has no remedy for a Congress that is polarized.

California, too, has its problems, and is going to face bigger ones in the not-too-distant future. The current drought, made worse by climate change, is likely not the last climate induced disaster with which California will grapple. The state is still spending less per student on its education system than it was before the Great Recession (though that situation has been getting better). But with a government actually capable of advancing legislation, there’s a lot of potential to do a lot of good.

“My entire career has been devoted to the public interest, whether representing victims of human trafficking or advocating for working families,” Fluke said. “While I strongly considered offering my candidacy for Congress, I feel there is a better way for me to advance the causes that are important to our community.” Indeed, under the current circumstances, she’ll have a much better chance of making a difference in Sacramento than in Washington, D.C.