Two recent articles have shed an interesting light on the size, and problems, of the Federal Government in the USA. The first appeared on CNN's Web site last week. Here's an excerpt.
Lurking behind the parties and personalities who animate today's politics are a set of historical trends and structural forces that are not going away any time soon.
The first culprit is the rising polarization of the Democratic and Republican parties. Since the early 1970s, Democrats have become steadily more liberal, just as Republicans have become more conservative. Though political scientists disagree about the reasons why this is so, nearly everyone agrees that it is so.
The polarization of the two major parties has consequences for a great deal more than just the contents of legislation. It fosters a broader political environment in which compromise invites ridicule, in which pragmatists are presumed to lack conviction, and in which each political faction is convinced not merely that it is right, but that those who disagree with it are stupid, evil or both.
A second, less appreciated factor is the increasing propensity of Congress to roll legislative proposals into the budgetary process. Particularly since the early 1980s, members of Congress have made quite a habit of bundling diverse policy initiatives into omnibus appropriations, and of relying on procedures meant for a limited range of spending issues to enact widespread policy initiatives.
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The rationale for going this route is straightforward enough: Given the extraordinary difficulties of legislating one policy at a time, members of Congress see clear benefits in rolling individual bills into a single massive initiative that, unlike a law, is not subject to a Senate filibuster.
The practice, however, has introduced new hazards of its own. By raising the political stakes involved, budgetary politics begin to look more like legislative politics, political fights erupt over issues such as abortion and Planned Parenthood that only tangentially relate to funding, and members of both parties see the appropriations process as yet another forum in which to score political points.
And this brings us to the third reason why we have reached the current impasse. Though the budgetary process provides opportunities for amendments and horse trades, the final budget ultimately either passes or fails with a single vote. Members must decide whether to accept all of the provisions put before them or none at all. And should they select the latter option, policy reverts not to last year's budget, but to no budget at all.
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To be sure, without the cover provided by the budget process, some legislative initiatives would not be enacted into law. Their inclusion in appropriations, though, comes at a cost. For during a shutdown, politicians lay waste to all sorts of basic programs and services while engaging in a high-stakes game of chicken.
There's more at the link.
The second article appeared in the Washington Post last Sunday.
We in America have created suicidal government; the threatened federal shutdown and stubborn budget deficits are but symptoms. By suicidal, I mean that government has promised more than it can realistically deliver and, as a result, repeatedly disappoints by providing less than people expect or jeopardizing what they already have. But government can’t easily correct its excesses, because Americans depend on it for so much that any effort to change the status arouses a firestorm of opposition that virtually ensures defeat. Government’s very expansion has brought it into disrepute, paralyzed politics and impeded it from acting in the national interest.
Few Americans realize the extent of their dependency. The Census Bureau reports that in 2009 almost half (46.2 percent) of the 300 million Americans received at least one federal benefit: 46.5 million, Social Security; 42.6 million, Medicare; 42.4 million, Medicaid; 36.1 million, food stamps; 3.2 million, veterans’ benefits; 12.4 million, housing subsidies. The census list doesn’t include tax breaks. Counting those, perhaps three-quarters or more of Americans receive some sizable government benefit. For example, about 22 percent of taxpayers benefit from the home mortgage interest deduction and 43 percent from the preferential treatment of employer-provided health insurance, says the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.
"Once politics was about only a few things; today, it is about nearly everything," writes the eminent political scientist James Q. Wilson in a recent collection of essays ('American Politics, Then and Now'). The concept of "vital national interest" is stretched. We deploy government casually to satisfy any mass desire, correct any perceived social shortcoming or remedy any market deficiency. What has abetted this political sprawl, notes Wilson, is the rising influence of "action intellectuals" - professors, pundits, "experts" - who provide respectable rationales for various political agendas.
The consequence is political overload: The system can no longer make choices, especially unpleasant choices, for the good of the nation as a whole. Public opinion is hopelessly muddled. Polls by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago consistently show Americans want more spending for education (74 percent), health care (60 percent), Social Security (57 percent) and, indeed, almost everything. By the same polls, between half and two-thirds of Americans regularly feel their taxes are too high; in 2010, a paltry 2 percent thought them too low. Big budget deficits follow logically; but of course, most Americans want those trimmed, too.
The trouble is that, despite superficial support for "deficit reduction" or "tax reform", few Americans would surrender their own benefits, subsidies and tax breaks - a precondition for success.
Again, more at the link. Bold print is my emphasis.
Reading these two articles together, it becomes clear from the first article that our two major political parties have partly helped to create the problem referred to in the second article. They've implemented policies designed to "feed the people from the public trough", in the hopes of ensuring electoral support for the party concerned. However, this has now become a monster devouring the parties themselves. They can no longer take the steps necessary to deal with our budgetary crisis, precisely because they've created and encouraged public dependency on the very excessive spending that's led to the crisis! If they cut off the benefits they provided earlier, they can see their electoral support eroding like dust in the wind. Add to that the reality that many voters who want reform aren't willing to pay for it by seeing their own State-provided benefits cut, and you have a dilemma of mammoth proportions.
Both articles are worth reading for the perspective they provide on the challenge now confronting this country. I don't necessarily agree with all their points, but they've certainly given me food for thought. Recommended.