Opinion

The Great Debate

If only Congress were less ambitious

November 22, 2011

By David Gordon and Sean West
The opinions expressed are their own.

There’s a good reason that only paid staffers and blood relatives seem to approve of Congress, as Senator John McCain recently quipped. But it is not the simple reason that Congress continues to fail, as witnessed in the implosion of the supercommittee. Rather it’s that Congress continuously promises unachievable historic fixes when it should instead be focused on slow progress.

There’s nothing wrong with small-scale fixes when they are the best achievable outcome. Congress is hyperpolarized and both sides are fighting for a mandate to reform the entire economy in line with their competing visions. As underwhelming as the August debt limit deal was, in the current political environment, saving over $2 trillion one way or another was a positive result. The fact that Congress could agree to something this large this year is actually quite stunning.

Failure – and the ensuing loss of respect in the eyes of voters – is largely due to leaders on both sides pretending that massive overhauls are in reach when they clearly aren’t. The problem is that Congress isn’t content to just do its job — it can’t help itself but to overpromise and then underdeliver.

During the debt limit debate, voters were treated to a roller coaster ride of epic proportions: One day Congress was going to cut $4 trillion from the debt, the next day the US government was going to default. In March, Congress was going to let the government shut down unless historic spending cuts were put in place. Both situations were manufactured crises that were created with the promise of forcing historic fixes. Neither did.

The supercommittee demonstrates the danger of playing this game. Members spent way too much time pretending they were going to do something historic — trading $3 trillion plans back and forth — instead of simply working on the $1.2 trillion task before them. Failing to reach $1.2 trillion looks that much worse to the public because Congress continuously talked about achieving much broader taxation and entitlement reform.

Neither party has full control of the political process and neither has an incentive to secure a big deal so close to a presidential election, so when the crisis has real consequences (like a shutdown of the government or default) they come together for modestly-sized deals amid dire political circumstances. At the end of the day for the supercommittee, sequestration thirteen months in the future was not a big enough threat to force an agreement.

Voters have every right to tune out what is a noisy game of fool-the-masses. And they are starting to do so. A recent poll found half of the voting population was “not at all aware” of the supercommittee, in contrast to the debt limit debate which was at least “somewhat closely” tracked by 70%. As the supercommittee turned to cobbling together an eleventh-hour modest deal as it had done twice earlier this year, it realized nobody was paying attention. With cover of public ignorance, members decided not to take any of the deals on the table and let the committee collapse. The public stopped paying attention because Congress had oversold its prior efforts; in losing its watchful eye, Congress no longer had to do anything.

In a democracy, elections appropriately determine large-scale policy changes—and with a presidential election less than a year away, it should be no surprise that the two parties must let voters determine whose vision is implemented instead of cutting deals today. The problem is that no one on either side is prepared to say that—they continue to pretend they will outperform, making modest progress less capable of being achieved.

America’s fiscal problems are sizable, but still fixable before the moment of reckoning, especially in contrast to the extraordinary challenges Europe faces. And it is relatively predictable how those problems will be fixed in either a second-term Obama administration or a first-term Mitt Romney administration. There’s nothing wrong with political posturing to show constituents that their interests matter. But there is something fundamentally wrong with manufacturing multiple artificial crisis points to force historic deals that never materialize, and to fail to reach a modest deal when no one is looking.

Hopefully less than a year before the election we will reach that magical moment when politicians openly admit that their reelection concerns trump policymaking and thus there are obvious limits to what can be achieved before Election Day. If they had only admitted as much at the beginning of 2011, voters might still be paying attention.

David Gordon, former director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department, is head of research at Eurasia Group. Sean West is US political risk director at Eurasia Group.

Photo: An aide carries a signage as a group of lawmakers calling themselves the “Go Big Coalition” meet for a news conference to encourage members of the so-called “super committee” on debt reduction to find a large compromise at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, November 16, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.

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