Monday, November 21, 2011

Dysfunctional government, gridlock, and bipartisanship

I don't concur with critics of Congress and Washington that our government is "dysfunctional." The primary argument they have, in fact the only argument they really have, is that gridlock indicates dysfunction. That's where I disagree with them. Gridlock is a function, not dysfunctional. Gridlock simply indicates that bipartisan agreement has not been reached. That's all. If members of Congress or the administration wish to put forward partisan proposals that do not have broad bipartisan support, that is their prerogative and there is nothing wrong or dysfunctional with that since they do so knowing full well in advance that partisan proposals are intended merely to score political points rather than to secure bipartisan support and become law. Passing more legislation just for the sake of passing more legislation is not automatically better government or more functional government or less dysfunctional government. Gridlock is merely a check on government, an assurance that important legislation has broad bipartisan support before in becomes law. That is an important function of the process, not dysfunction.
The makeup of Congress merely reflects the broad makeup of the entire country, albeit roughly and without precision per se. Members of Congress represent their constituents; if their constituents feel otherwise they are free to vote them out in the next election. If Congress seems gridlocked, that usually simply indicates that the country as a whole lacks a consensus, and in such cases the right thing for Congress to do is... nothing. And that is very functional since it better represents the country as a whole.
Even non-starter partisan proposals are not really dysfunctional since they give a voice to the various constituencies that exist in this country. That also is an important function of government. Even if there is no broad bipartisan consensus on a particular issue or proposal, at least the various constituencies can have their voices heard so that future proposals can find broader bipartisan support.
The impending failure of the deficit super-committee is a perfect example. Sure they may "fail" (although there is still time for a last-minute breakthrough), but that is primarily due to the partisan nature of the proposals and the strength of the partisanship merely indicates that there is strong anxiety across the entire country about both rising taxes and reduction of government services, whether the reduction is for defense or social services. This particular gridlock is a good thing since there is not broad bipartisan support right now for doing anything other than the default which is the across the board $1.2 trillion in spending cuts. For all intents and purposes there does appear to be broad bipartisan support for going with the default spending cuts as unappealing as they may seem to various constituencies. It's called shared sacrifice, each side giving up some of its sacred cows for the greater good. And, it is a sign of a functional government, not dysfunction.
Polls may show that a majority of Americans are unhappy with their government and Congress in particular, but I think that is more a matter of each partisan constituency being unhappy that their partisan agenda is not advancing (achieving smaller government and lower taxes on the right and enhancing government services on the left), or with independents merely expressing the opinion that they don't like partisan politics despite the fact that a lot of Americans do.
Does the unhappy majority really agree on an acceptable solution? Nope. That means that gridlock is the answer until somebody comes up with a broad bipartisan approach that the majority does find acceptable. As unhappy as many people are with the status quo, maybe it just happens to be that the status quo is the optimal solution for the present time. There is nothing dysfunctional in that.
Finally, gridlock on Congress or Washington does not mean we have gridlock in all of America. People continue to go about their daily business, businesses continue to spend and hire (or fire as the case may be), farmers continue to plant and harvest crops, Detroit cranks out cars and trucks, etc. Life goes on. Imagine that – life can go on even if Congress doesn't pass any new legislation. That's a tough concept for some people to swallow, but that is the nature of reality.
Maybe the economy would grow faster with more government stimulus and spending, or maybe with lower taxes. Could be (and likely is), but maybe growing at a more leisurely and more sustainable pace right now is actually better for the long-term sustainable economic health of the whole country, despite what any partisan constituency might say.


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