It was well past midnight on a cool October Saturday in Washington DC, as members of the 112th Congress growled and argued their way through a trove of pressing legislative business.
As usual, not much was accomplished, but there was a glimmer of productivity. Before leaving town and hitting the campaign trail, Democrats and Republicans finally agreed on another stop-gap measure to keep the US government from shutting down - for at least another six months. And with that, the least productive and most rancorous Congress in recent memory left town and hit the campaign trail, leaving behind a pile of unfinished business.
They left in record time, literally. No congress has adjourned this early in four decades.
Congress is often called a sausage factory because the craft of making sausage is, well, messy and quite frankly not anything you really want to watch. If you have seen a committee hearing or any of the fights on the floor you can see why the comparison has stuck. But even messy lawmaking seems to be at best a distant memory now. It is probably more apt to describe Congress as a slaughterhouse, because it seems to be where ideas now go to die.
This Congress has passed fewer laws than any before it. The heated pitched battles between the president, Democrats and Republicans have descended into dysfunction and acrimony. Congress has not passed a budget in more than three years. Its inaction forced a two-week furlough of thousands of construction workers responsible for building the country's airports.
Last year, it embroiled the country in a debt-ceiling crisis, which nearly led to a government shutdown and resulted in a US credit ratings downgrade. That saga could still yield more consequences after Election Day - in the form of $1tn in automatic cuts to government programmes over the next 10 years, all because politicians cannot agree on the most basic spending policies.
The American people have noticed, and they do not seem happy. Congress has a 10 per cent approval rating, according to polls - the lowest in nearly four decades. The question is: what can these voters do about it?
We have heard it often as we travelled across the country in the run-up to the election: "we need a third party". A lot of people are saying it. But doing it? That is a whole other story.
The rules of the game
"The two main parties are in collusion to keep upstarts out of the main competition."
- Jason Johnson, political analyst
The rules of the game, it turns out, are sort of rigged - written by elected Democrats and Republicans in state and federal government. And those officials have every reason to protect their existing interests, to make sure no one new gets to play without their approval.
"The two main parties are in collusion to keep upstarts out of the main competition," said political analyst Jason Johnson.
Even if they get on the ballot in most states, they have to get their message out to voters. To do that, they need two things: media coverage and money.
A presidential candidate can get the most exposure during televised debates. Tens of millions of Americans watch. For a third party candidate to participate, he or she needs to prove he or she has at least 15 per cent of the public support, as determined by five national opinion polls. That rule was crafted by the two parties who run the debate commission. Here is the problem: media outlets conduct most of the polling, and they very rarely ask about third party candidates (especially in the early stages of the campaign), which makes it nearly impossible for anybody without a D or an R next to their name to get involved in the national discussion.
There is also the issue of cash. To be a "contender", you need hundreds of millions of dollars. Third-party candidates just do not get that kind of financial support. "The two major parties have long-standing relationships with media and businesses that make it easier to get prominent interviews, access important consultants and advising and, of course, money," said Johnson.
In a country where money is now defined as speech - as one current presidential candidate describes it, "corporations are people too" - the outsized role of money in this election has made it that much harder for those outside the mainstream to be heard.
"If you are voting for a third party, you are helping to elect the candidate you like least."
- Bill Schneider, political analyst
So far in this election, the Obama and Romney campaigns have raised around $632m and $389m, respectively, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Thanks to a controversial Supreme Court decision (Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission) supporters can also now spend unlimited amounts of cash on the candidates' behalf.
Compare those figures to the money being raised and spent by independent third parties. This year, Green Party candidate Jill Stein's campaign managed to qualify for federal funds. Those come from $3 donations that US taxpayers can voluntarily give on their tax returns. So did Libertarian Party candidate and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson. In order to qualify, candidates must raise at least $5,000 in 20 US states. They also have to agree to limit their spending and to use the funds for "legitimate campaign-related expenses". The amounts of money they qualify for pales in comparison to what the major parties have to spend. Neither Obama nor Romney will accept federal funds. There are too many strings attached for too little cash.
If these outsiders can actually get their message across to voters, convincing them to vote for them is another challenge. Third-party candidates are often cast as potential spoilers. Casting a vote for a third party is often viewed as irrational because he or she cannot possibly win. "If you are voting for a third party, you are helping to elect the candidate you like least," said Bill Schneider, a political analyst.
Remember Ralph Nader? The consumer advocate ran on the Green Party ticket in 2000, won two million votes, and came in third behind Al Gore and eventual Republican President George W Bush. Democrats lambasted Nader for taking away votes from Gore, which in turn, helped Bush secure the election victory in the narrowest of contests.
And then there was Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who won 19 per cent of the general vote in 1992 as a Reform Party candidate. But Republicans blamed him for siphoning off votes from George H W Bush's re-election campaign.
There was a protester holding a sign at a recent Obama event that said "the lesser of two evils is still evil". That sums up the sentiment we have heard across the country. More and more Americans are saying they want more choices at the ballot box. It is a growing sentiment, but turning that into reality requires taking on a very large, complex and entrenched system that is designed to ensure its own survival.
Source: Al Jazeera