Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"broken" government

"Washington, right now, is broken," says Vice President Biden. Many other commentators are labeling our political system "dysfunctional." Congress is in low esteem, with the Senate filibuster especially criticized.

Now wait a minute. I share many of the criticisms but believe that much of the analysis is flawed. Jim Fallows of the Atlantic has a more balanced view of America's strengths and weaknesses, and his ultimate recommendation is to "muddle through."

A professor at the always interesting Monkey Cage demonstrates that Americans' trust in government varies over time -- highest when the economy is growing and least when we're in recession.

I'm troubled by the polarization of our politics and the gridlock preventing action on long term deficits, health care reform, energy issues, and reform of banking and finance. But this polarization has been increasing over time, fueled by politicians who have no incentive to be statesmen. Gerald Seib of the Wall Street Journal has a good analysis of how this has happened in the Senate -- and the explanation is largely a loss in the human interactions that buffered the political conflicts.

Too few in Congress today have institutional loyalty and respect. They have too many incentives to disparage the institution rather than working to make modest reforms. Many in the GOP minority seem to be ready to repeat the Gingrich strategy, which he famously described as destroying Congress in order to save it.

I'm not totally discouraged because I know that "better angels" can arise. There are moments when partisans became statesmen. It happened in 1948 with the Marshall Plan. It happened in 1958 when, in response to Sputnik, President Eisenhower and the Democratic Congress agreed to a broad based response: some defense increases [including DARPA], creation of NASA, and the National Defense Education Act with emphasis on science, math and foreign languages. It happened in 1964-65 with the civil rights and voting rights acts. It happened in 1982 with the Greenspan commission on Social Security. I saw it happen in 1990 with the Budget Enforcement Act that put us on the path toward a balanced budget. And it started to happen after the 9/11 attacks with the Patriot Act, subject to sunset, until the Bush Administration opted for partisan polarization instead of cooperation.

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