In a perfect world, Democrats are supposed to relentlessly push for higher taxes as Republicans zealously advocate for cutting government spending. The theory is that if both sides are equally passionate in pursuing their goals, there will be sufficient revenue to pay for government and enough vigilance to keep spending from spinning out of control.
But what if Democrats decided they were tired of being the piñata for Republican attack ads on raising taxes? And what if Republicans grew weary of being vilified for cutting spending, because every government program is near and dear to someone's heart? What would happen then?
Congress is no longer capable of dealing with the deficit, but it won't allow creation of the only mechanism that could possibly solve it.
The answer is that federal spending would explode, revenues wouldn't keep up, deficits would soar, and eventually -- unless something major changed -- the crushing accumulation of debt would create a sovereign debt crisis, much like what we've seen happening the past few weeks among the so-called PIIGS, more commonly known as Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain. Moody's issued a warning recently that the U.S. government's AAA bond rating might become endangered someday. Experts say that such a day is probably five or more years down the road, but the nation's current economic path is definitely taking us in that direction.
Welcome to Washington! Having spent last weekend at an investment conference where top-notch tax and budget experts and economists warned about this country's impending fiscal crisis, I found it perfectly natural to hear Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh, one of the most moderate and pragmatic, not to mention decent, members of Congress, throw up his hands and virtually say, "This place sucks. I'm outta here!" The two-term senator from Indiana pointed to the defeat of a Senate bill a few weeks ago that would have created a federal budget deficit-reduction commission charged with developing a set of recommendations that Congress would have to adopt or reject as a whole; it would work much like the base-closure commissions that enabled Congress to deal with the dicey issue of mothballing military bases that were no longer needed.
Fifty-three senators voted in favor of the commission, seven short of the 60 needed. The 46 opponents were evenly divided between the parties, 23 from each side voting against doing what needed to be done. Clearly, Congress is no longer capable of dealing with our country's biggest problem, but it won't allow creation of the only mechanism that could possibly solve it. Democrats and Republicans are equally culpable. Well, that's just great.
What we have seen in recent years is total dysfunction. Leading up to the 2006 election, we had a Republican-controlled Congress and a Republican president, and Washington was dysfunctional. Then for two years we had a Democratic Congress and a Republican president. That, too, was dysfunctional. Now we have a Democratic Congress and Democratic president, and the federal government is still dysfunctional. After November's midterm elections, we may very well have a Republican House and a marginally Democratic Senate to go with a Democratic president. My bet is that dysfunction will continue to reign.
The source of the disarray is not simply that each side is capitulating, not living up to its end of the natural bargain, not keeping up with its natural tendencies. We also have a Congress in which any spending, no matter how specious, isn't regarded as wasteful by a given lawmaker if it goes to that member's home state or district. If every delegation puts its state's interest ahead of the national interest, then the national interest comes in about 51st. It is astonishing the spending that members seem comfortable advocating with a straight face, despite the country's mounting fiscal woes.
After Bayh's retirement announcement, I heard someone remark that the Indianan wasn't afraid of losing; he was afraid of winning and having to serve six more years in a dysfunctional institution. There seems to be little payoff for lawmakers to try to rise above their immediate political self-interest and do the right thing for the country. There appears to be widespread recognition that the last edition of Profiles in Courage has gone to the printer. No new names will be added. All too few members of Congress see any incentive to do the politically unpalatable and often politically dangerous things required to get a country out of a deep rut.
This article appears in the February 20, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.