How can our federal government solve big problems? How about over dinner?

Congress is frozen. It can’t even pass a budget, the fundamental task of governments. The long-term thinking is: How do we get to next week? World leaders wonder what has happened to the U.S.

All the while, big problems fester. Social Security and Medicare each face insolvency in a few years, and the national debt is soaring to unhealthy levels, with no reversal in sight, which saps funding for defense and human services.


Why doesn’t our national government look ahead? After all, local governments are awash in comprehensive long-term plans. Unfortunately, there is an inverse relationship between the level at which elected officials serve and their willingness to do long-term thinking. The higher the potential political costs to state and national politicians, the less the attention to often nettlesome long-term problems.

The reasons for our congressional dysfunction are clear:

1. Polarization between evenly divided parties, which come at policy from ideological poles.

2. The unacceptable political risks of showing the courage to address problems while they are still manageable.

The political cost of displaying the mettle to manage a tough problem, as in increasing taxes or reducing spending, or a combination of the two, almost guarantees a primary nomination challenge from a congressman’s right or left.

Elected officials aren’t into leadership, as they proclaim, but followership of lightly informed public opinion. The lack of leadership is deepened when the problems are evident at present yet the consequences lie in the future — that is, they can be put off, though at great cost.

So, instead, elected officials play “gotcha.” They condemn the other party for all the failures of humanity, when everyone knows that some degree of compromise will be required to address the big problems.

Structure is important to governments. For example, the regular meetings of the Federal Open Market Committee provide critical information to investors about the future direction of the economy.

I propose here a kind of “structured depolarization,” in which the president and four top congressional leaders, plus several rotating Cabinet members, be required to sit down together over dinner, say, every two months, to wrestle with the big problems on the horizon. We might call them the Senior Council on Major Challenges. (Please, readers, come up with a better name.)

This council would be charged with reporting and recommending to Congress policies that would result, for example, in solvency for our major social safety net programs. There are more than enough talented staff at the Congressional Research Service, the executive budget office and in scores of D.C. think tanks to lay out solid policy options.

Such a council wouldn’t, of course, guarantee action in the form of recommendations to and subsequent action by Congress.

Yet the existence alone of a council that meets regularly could accomplish several things:

• Highlight for the American public the difficult, often costly, options that need to be considered.

• Nudge our nation’s leadership into doing what they should be doing anyway.

• Spread the “blame” for any actions on tough issues. The council: “We just recommended; Congress took the action.” Congress: “These were the options our leaders recommended.”

• Possibly accelerate action on big, tough issues that are better dealt with sooner rather than later.

Our nation and indeed the world rely on a decisive, thoughtful America. We can’t let polarization, a lack of forethought and inadequate political courage freeze us into debility.

The structure of government can induce positive consequences for policymaking. Structured depolarization is needed now.