Debate Magazine

Political Failure

Posted on the 22 November 2011 by Conroy @conroyandtheman
by Conroy
Political FailureI’ve never used this blog as a place to write about political issues orrail against political developments. As far as possible, I like to maintain anapolitical tone, out of respect to readers and because my deep-seatedpragmatism guides me to a more centrist perspective. But the events of todayrequire a response.
The much hyped Congressional “Super Committee” (officially named the UnitedStates Congress Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction) of six Democratsand Republicans has failed in its one and only task of identifying at least $1.2trillion in federal budget cuts (spread out over ten years).
As you may recall, back in the summer there was a debt-ceiling crisis – entirelyof the political class’ doing – when the United States nearly reached its debt(borrowing) limit. The crisis was precipitated when Congressional Republicansrefused to extend the government’s borrowing limits without a guarantee ofcommensurate reductions in spending (anathema to Democrats). For their side,Democrats refused to consider spending cuts without some form of tax increases(anathema to Republicans). Neither side budged and the prospect of a limitedgovernment default was at hand. At the eleventh hour a compromise deal,endorsed by President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, was passed by Congress. It raised the federal borrowing limit but requiredsubstantial cuts in government spending. Those cuts were to be identified by theSuper Committee. There were to be no new taxes.
Following all this haggling Standard & Poor's actually downgraded the United States credit rating for the first time in the nation’s history, and the stockmarket plummeted by several hundred points (several percent of its total). Itwas a stark indictment of the men and women controlling America’s federal finances.
The national debt has been an issue for a long time, but it has reallysoared over the last decade as increased defense spending and rapidly increasingSocial Security and health care costs, combined with two large tax cuts and amajor recession to throw the federal budget out of whack. Despite non-stop talkin Washington about corralling the ballooning debt, nothing was done. That wassupposed to end with the latest budget bill.  
Politics without Leadership
Now, nearly four months later, despite all of the promises and hooplasurrounding the Super Committee, and after ten weeks of in camera meetings, no schedule of spending cuts has beenidentified. Congress (and the President) has failed to lead; to make toughchoices. Instead, as this summer’s budget bill stipulates, automatic cuts willbe enforced starting in 2013. These include 8-9% reductions in both defense andnon-defense programs. However, third rail programs like Social Security willnot be touched.
No doubt in the immediate term – like tomorrow – we will see anotherdrastic decline in the stock market as investors react to yet more governmentineptitude.
This abdication of responsibility allows Republicans to go back thetheir constituencies and boast about avoiding tax increases and Democrats to goback to their constituencies and brag about maintaining vital social programs.And here’s the kicker: Between now and 2013, Congress has the power to exemptprograms from the automatic cuts. It’s very possible that by the time 2013comes around special interests will have lobbied Congress out of all seriouscuts. In other words, nothing will be cut. Business as usual; and the nationaldebt will continue to pile up at record levels. The President held a shortpress conference this afternoon where he promised to veto any bill that exemptsprograms from the automatic cuts. Sound words, but we’ll see.
This is so typical of the “kick the can down the road” behavior ofAmerican politicians. If it continues, that road will lead to disaster. Greeceand Italy overspent for decades and now those nation’s finances are nearing catastrophe. Their problems threaten to undermine the Euro and maybe undo theEuropean Union. There is nothing that makes America immune to the same disasterthat’s facing Europe. One day all debts come due.
Real Solutions
When debt is piling up there seem to be three solutions: (1) cutspending, (2) raises taxes, and (3) both (1) and (2). This is so obvious thatonly politicians could miss it. The American debt is so large ($15 trillion)and the annual deficits so out of control (more than $1 trillion this year),that only major cuts in spending and revisions to the tax code will bring thenational finances back in order. I’m not an economist, and I haven’t siftedthrough the dust-dry federal budget, but seemingly common sense solutionsinclude:
  • Cut spending across the board, including for defense, Social Security,and Medicare;
  • Revise the tax code to eliminate loopholes and exemptions; and,
  • Revise the eligibility age and payment schedules for Social Security.

Political Failure

Social Security - the third rail of American politics

If additional measures still need to be taken, consider modestincreases to taxes. Politicians like to think of themselves as leaders, butreal leadership involves making tough choices for the greater good. Avoiding spendingcuts will be popular; a lot of people would feel the pain of reduced benefits,services, and funding. Avoiding tax revisions will be celebrated; revisionsand/or tax hikes would take money out of corporate coffers and citizens’pockets. But making these tough choices is what we need now. Where are our nationalleaders?
And if elected officials can’t make these decisions, no one will. Theaverage citizen is not equipped to decide on government finances, just witnessCalifornia.  For the last half-centurythe finances of the Golden State have been ravaged by direct citizen-government. That state’s ballot initiative system allows forplebiscites on specific programs. What this has resulted in is a citizenryvoting for myriad programs, which are then guaranteed by law, but also votingfor rules that make it very difficult for the state legislature to pass taxesto pay for them. California government is widely viewed as dysfunctional andannual state deficits are in the tens of billions of dollars (more than $26billion last year). Drastic cuts are already taking hold at the local level,how much longer before they affect the whole state?
On the national level, the reality is that a lot more than the minimum $1.2trillion needs to be cut from spending over the next decade. Maybe three orfour times as much to keep the deficit from growing. But what the results oftoday, and the performances we’ve seen from the previous and current President,and the five Congresses over the last decade, suggest that what we’ll actuallyget is more of the same; right up until true disaster looms.
Cynicism and Apathy
It’s this type of government that leads to widespread cynicism about Washington.There is an old expression that cynicism only masks a failure to cope. Thatmight be so, but how else are rational, pragmatic observers supposed to reactto a federal government that seems intent on mismanagement? Politicians getaway with breathing hollow rhetoric and breaking promises. How can the commoncitizen not be discouraged at such a situation?

Political Failure

Money - the lifeblood of politics

In the end I’m not all that surprised at the result. I thought thatmaybe with all the light on the Super Committee the members would feel pressureto produce results. But the bottom line is that the present spendthrift system works toowell for politicians. Lavishing money on favored programs and eschewing allforms of tax increases is a path to reelection. And it’s the rare Senator orRepresentative that leaves Washington less wealthy than they arrived, and fewerstill that spend their post Congressional years in anything less than easy materialcomfort. I wince when I hear any of my fellow citizens talk about politiciansas heroes or speak about them with reverence. There are true leaders out there,but for every Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill there must be a thousand self-interestedpoliticians. It’s in a word, disheartening.
That’s enough of my indignation. I hope I don’thave to write about politics again anytime soon.

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