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Is Washington too 'broken' to handle big problems such as immigration reform?

Many Americans worry that Washington cannot handle big problems such as immigration reform and the debt. But the country has been here before, and overcome a supposedly 'broken' political system. Government is divided because 'we the people' are divided on the issues.

By John J. Pitney Jr.Op-ed contributor / May 22, 2013

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont (left) confers with Sens. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York and Dianne Feinstein (D) of Californa on May 20. The committee passed a sweeping bipartisan immigration bill May 21, which will go to the Senate floor for debate. Op-ed contributor John J. Pitney Jr. writes: 'Political change will come when voters move decisively in one direction or the other.'

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Claremont, Calif.

Many Americans worry that their political system cannot handle big problems such as immigration reform and the national debt. Young people are unsure about the democratic institutions they will inherit. Some pundits blame the Constitution and call for deep changes in the structure of government.

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We’ve been here before – and have overcome the challenge.

During the early 1930s, the Great Depression was at its meanest. Economic desperation combined with Prohibition-era crime to produce murder rates that would not be seen again until the 1970s. Millions lost hope because Washington had seemingly lost its way.

Serious and influential people wondered whether the United States should give up on democracy altogether. Some held up foreign despots as role models. “Say, Mussolini could run this country with his eyes shut,” wrote humorist Will Rogers in February 1933. “In fact, that’s the way our Congress has been running it.” Meanwhile, the movie “Gabriel Over the White House” scored big at the box office with its favorable depiction of a fictional president assuming dictatorial power.

A few weeks after the movie’s premiere, however, Franklin D. Roosevelt took office. His confident demeanor immediately started to reassure Americans. Together with strong majorities in Congress, he launched policies – Social Security, for instance – that revived optimism about the country’s direction, even though the Depression would linger for years.

In the late 1970s, the nation again seemed to be careening out of control. The decade’s woes – including stagflation and gas lines – were not as horrible as the Depression, but they were bad enough to spawn anxiety that the country’s governing system was not up to the job. Once again, Washington heard talk about radical surgery on institutions. There was no support for dictatorship this time; instead, leading writers such as Lloyd Cutler and Lester Thurow argued that America should move toward a parliamentary system, in which the party that wins the legislative branch also takes the executive branch – in other words, no divided government.

Then came the 1980 election and the Reagan administration. The Gipper hardly put an end to America’s problems, but as with FDR, his successes – and eternal optimism – quieted the calls for scrapping the Founders’ system. Forty-eight years after FDR launched Social Security, Reagan reached a legislative agreement to keep it alive for decades to come.

A few years ago, international crises and economic disaster reignited fears about American democracy. For a moment, it seemed as if President Obama might follow in the Roosevelt-Reagan tradition by restoring faith in the system. He and a Democratic Congress won enactment of a massive economic stimulus and far reaching health-care law.

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