Our republic is under stress. So much so, in fact, that if you're not worried about its future, you probably haven't been paying attention. What makes me say this? Our public discourse has become uncivil and shrill. Corruption and unethical actions by prominent politicians headline the daily news. Too many politicians make their mark by fueling division, exploiting frustration and casting doubt on our democratic institutions — and too many Americans respond by agreeing with them.
One wonders whether we can ever find the will to negotiate and compromise on difficult issues. We need leaders who can rise above the polarization and divisiveness, and instill a sense that we are all in this together. Have you already made up your mind about how you're going to vote — at least by party — in this year's important elections? I hope not.
Because we live in such tumultuous political times, it's easy to believe that today's intense public focus on the Trump presidency is something new — an obsession like none we've ever seen before. Yet to one degree or another, the president has always been at the center of the public's attention. This is because he or she is the central actor in American government. The sheer complexity of our system, with its three branches, separation of powers and competing centers of power, demands someone who can make it work.
I hope that in 2018 we can re-focus on one of the defining characteristics of being an American: that we devote ourselves to something larger than ourselves. This may seem odd, but as I look ahead to a year we all know will be momentous, you want to know what I feel most strongly? Gratitude.
It's past time for comprehensive reform of Congress, but these changes I advocate will not come about without citizen action. The first three words of the U.S. Constitution are, "We the People." The Constitution itself, our institutions of government, the democratic process — all were established to give Americans a voice in their own governance. We are still striving to make that vision real for all, but we are closer than ever.
As Republicans in Congress move forward on their tax plan, it's worth remembering one thing: whatever the legislative particulars, keep your eye on the plan's impact on the federal debt. Our debt load is already worrisome. It's almost certainly going to get worse.
It's built into the idea of representative democracy that making change is difficult, which is why many people get discouraged. But few things can exceed the satisfaction of helping shape the direction and success of your community or nation.
Using the debt ceiling as a means of reining in excessive spending has not worked. Our political efforts should go toward finding long-term solutions that restrain spending and boost tax revenue. Back when I was in Congress, I got a call from a constituent one day. I'd recently voted to raise the nation's debt ceiling, and the man was more than irate. "Don't you understand that we've got a serious spending and debt problem in this country?" he asked. "Why did you cast this idiotic vote?"
Our political system appears dysfunctional and occasionally on the verge of breakdown. But however dire things appear in Washington, I believe we have it within us to set the country back on a productive track. I've been reminded recently of the old cowboy song, Home on the Range. You know the line, "Where never is heard a discouraging word"? That is not the United States right now. It feels like pretty much everywhere I turn, all I hear is discouragement.
When I talk to people about Congress and Washington in general, I'm impressed by their hunger for bipartisanship. Americans of all stripes want members of the two parties to work together more. Back in March, two young members of Congress from Texas, Beto O'Rourke and Will Hurd, became brief internet celebrities. Unable to fly back to Washington because of a snowstorm, the two hit the road together, tweeting and livestreaming their trip north.