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By Jack Ganssle

Engineering Congress

Published on, November 2012.

Thankfully the long and depressing 2012 election season here in the USA has ended. Unhappily the long and soon-to-be-depressing 2014 season is beginning. The result of several billion dollars of campaigning and at least as many inane TV ads: nothing much changed. Mostly the same players are in the same jobs. The relative closeness of the presidential popular vote suggests neither side has any sort of public mandate.

I was in Michigan the day of the election, and was amazed to find one of their congressmen was re-elected. He's been in office since 1955. One of my home state's (Maryland) senators has been in elected office since 1967, just three years after graduating from college and before finishing his law degree. The other has held elected office since 1971 With the same players and the same problems it's hard to see how the logjam between the parties will result in anything new or different.

It wasn't always this way.

The nation has faced seemingly insurmountable problems before. Today's politics are polarized to the point of paralysis, yet this is not new; what could be more polarizing than the secession of 11 states? The difference is that leaders in the 1860s were problem solvers not wedded to an ideology. Lincoln and his utter nemeses managed to forge a team that could work together (for an excellent book on the subject see Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin). It was ugly and bitter, and the fallout persisted for a very log time. But the nation succeeded. (Of course, there has always been a minority who call for succession. But that's been a constant in US politics going back to our earliest years).

Going back even further, the constitutional convention was a mashup of people with vastly different opinions. They fought. Argued. Persuaded. Despite strongly held and opposing beliefs the result was the most successful constitution in the world's history. For the Fathers were problem solvers willing to compromise for the sake of the fledgling Republic.

Today it seems the parties' only objective is power and re-election. Washington refused to serve more than two terms. He didn't really want more than one, but his bitter opponent Thomas Jefferson, along with Hamilton, convinced him it was for the good of the nation. Can you imagine such behavior today?

Of course, US history has its black spots. But almost two and a half centuries on the nation has prospered. Sometimes that was by luck, but also often with the help of a political class that put the country's needs first.

The first sentence of Wikipedia's entry on "engineer" is "An engineer is a professional practitioner of engineering, concerned with applying scientific knowledge, mathematics and ingenuity to develop solutions for technical, social and economic problems." That's a pretty good definition; too many of us think engineering is about building products, but it's more the art of solving problems. The Wikipedia definition almost sounds like the biography of Thomas Jefferson, one of our most successful presidents. Or that of Benjamin Franklin.

Do we need engineers as representatives, people charged with, and skillful at, solving problems? The last Congress included six ( and gave us one of the most dysfunctional bodies in a long time. We're there too few engineers? Or does problem-solving take a back seat to parroting the party line in 2012?

We've had several engineer-presidents. None of them were particularly successful.

One wonders what an Abraham Lincoln would do today. He must have had an engineer's mind; he is the only president who held a patent, and he did manage to problem-solve some very difficult issues. He wasn't wedded to an ideology; in fact he was more like a modern agile developer, changing everything as the situation demanded. Generals, Cabinet secretaries and everyone else were fungible as Lincoln tuned his approach. He had one vision - hold the nation together - and was willing to negotiate everything else.

Alas, neither side put up a Lincoln this year.

Engineering is the art of the possible; it means compromising and making tradeoffs. We trade off power vs speed, size vs performance. Often there's no correct answer, just the best possible solution given the available technology and resources.

So is governing. We face serious problems and need some serious - and surely painful - solutions. That means problem-solving and putting the nation's interest above party affiliation. It means taking an engineering approach to find reasonable tradeoffs even when the results are imperfect.

Let's hope that the 113th Congress will think at least a little like engineers do.