Our Political System Encourages Posturing and Extremists and Discourges Getting Things Done

With control of the House, the Republicans said they would seek to immediately cancel any unspent money from last year’s $787 billion economic stimulus program, to freeze the size of the “nonsecurity” federal work force, and to quickly cut $100 billion in discretionary spending. But the blueprint, with echoes of the 1994 Contract With America, does not specify how the spending reductions would be carried out.

From G.O.P. Cites Tax Cuts and Health Care as Main Focus in The New York Times, describing the GOP’s ridiculous and gag-inducing “Pledge for America”.

Here in a nutshell is why our government is no longer capable of solving difficult problems (was it ever?). Our system incentivizes the major political parties to avoid realistic positions on tough issues, and instead to pander to their “base” by committing to unrealistic and unworkable policies they know perfectly well have no chance of becoming law. Their goal isn’t to articulate sound policy. It’s simply to convince enough of the pathetically small 15% of the electorate that’s going to bother to vote in November to vote for them. In this case the Republican leadership knows perfectly well their “pledge” is anything but, but nonetheless in all likelihood they’re going to be rewarded for it on election day.

Let’s say Republicans take the House in November. Then what? Will they be able to enact these policies and then be held accountable by the electorate for the results? No. That’s not how our government works. They are not going to repeal health care, they are not going to stop any remaining stimulus spending, and even though government spending is at a 40 year high and tax rates are at a 40 year low and all they do is complain about the deficit, they are not going to think about, say, letting tax rates revert to their 2000 levels or touch the big entitlement programs in any meaningful way.

They might take a symbolic vote in the House to repeal health care, say, but this would just be posturing. If Democrats still control the Senate, they know it will die there. Even if Republicans control the Senate, they know it would still die there, since the Senate now requires a super majority to pass anything even slightly controversial. And even if by some miracle it passed the Senate, they know the President will veto it. But that’s the problem: they only propose this stuff because they know they can’t pass it, so they will never have to be held accountable for it. If they could realistically pass a repeal of the health care law, they wouldn’t be running on doing so, because regardless of what the polls say, they won’t be able to pass a law that once again allows health insurance companies to throw you off your plan when you get sick or deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. Over time this health care law will become just as much of a third rail of American politics as Social Security and Medicare. It’s just meaningless red meat for the base that has the sad and dangerous side effect of poisoning the environment on Capitol Hill and creates a political atmosphere that destroying any chance to move forward on any number of very real problems facing the country.

No one in our system has any institutional incentive to compromise, to find middle ground, to work to solve problems, to educate their constituents on why, say, the Wall Street bailout may have been morally repugnant but in the end probably kept the economy from going off a cliff and as a result millions of people got to keep their jobs, stay in their homes, feed their families, and stay out of poverty. Instead we just get endless posturing, and absolutely no accountability.

Contrast with the UK, which elected a Conservative government only after they finally ran on a more moderate, responsible platform (a requirement we don’t demand of our parties – indeed, we demand the opposite). For example, they finally stopped promising to gut the NHS, finally grasping that people don’t want the NHS to be gutted. They ≠want it to work well. Now they’re actually able to follow through on their austerity programs and are making really tough cuts to try to actually solve the hard problems as they understand them. They had an election, and the victors govern. They’ll have another on in few years, and the electorate will hold the party in power accountable. What’s happening in Britain could never, ever happen here. Does anyone seriously think electing Republicans is going to lead to balanced budgets? It simply sets up the next round of senseless partisanship in anticipation of the next election cycle.

This paralysis is also at least partially why both parties are increasingly looking to the courts. On so many issues, Congress is simply incapable of action. It’s actually easier to rule by judicial fiat.