Commentary: Has government ever not been broken?

Listen to the rhetoric flowing from candidates this year and you'll hear a common message.

The system is broken. Washington, D.C., is broken. Olympia is broken.

Political shards, it seems, are everywhere. And it isn't relegated to the challengers, to the tea party. Even Vice President Joe Biden proclaimed earlier this year that "Washington, right now, is broken ... I've never seen it this dysfunctional."

Some might find it ironic that the current vice president, a man who spent 36 years in the U.S. Senate, a man who like no other personifies "the system," would criticize the system. But then, he ought to know.

And voters agree. A Rasmussen Reports poll in February said 73 percent of voters surveyed agreed with Biden. And an April poll by the Pew Research Center reported that 65 percent of voters gave Congress an unfavorable rating and just 25 percent offered a favorable rating.

That a quarter of voters thought Congress was doing a good job is surprising in itself. I guess I didn't realize there were that many lobbyists in the country.

Pew recently reported that independent voters, those who often determine the results of elections, are ready to vote against the party in power — Democrats. That same block of voters voted against Republicans in 2006 and 2008 when they controlled the White House. (When Pew reported its survey of voter sentiment just four years ago, it said: "The American public is angry with Congress, and this is bad news for the Republicans.")

Olympia doesn't escape the skepticism. A Washington Poll from May reported that just 36 percent of state voters had a favorable impression of the Legislature and 43 percent were unfavorable.

So we can agree that Washington, D.C. — and probably Olympia too — is broken. But that leads to another question. When, exactly, was it not broken? If challengers insist they are the right ones to fix what ails us, shouldn't they identify when it all went wrong? Shouldn't we examine that time when the system was working at full efficiency so we can return to the glory days?

In the early years of the last century, the direct democracy movement convinced voters in Washington and most other Western states to add the initiative, referendum and recall. It was a reaction to a political system deemed corrupt.

Washington would always need "trained legislators" who might give "faithful, disinterested and reasonably wise service" a brochure from the Direct Legislation League in 1910 argued.

"But we seldom get such service, and we many times need the power of Direct Legislation so that we may lock the barn before the horse is stolen."

Was it when the nation faced the crisis of the Great Depression? That's when American humorist Will Rogers — the Jon Stewart of his era — drew knowing laughs with comments like: "The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn't get worse every time Congress meets," and "This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer."

It must not have improved by 1977 when Groucho Marx wrote: "Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies."

So maybe it was never unbroken. Maybe Americans have always had a rather poor impression of Washington, D.C., and maybe those who promised to reform it joined it instead.

Pew shows that the favorable rating is declining over the past few decades but found years when it was pretty high — 67 percent in 1985 and above 50 percent more often than not. A rough examination suggests the number tracks the economy — up when times are good, down when times are bad.

But again, despite the economy, it is trending downward as each reform movement disappoints rather than delivers. If it were a stock, you might think about selling.

Which is what independents appear ready to do to those in control this November.