Congress is entrenched in bitterly partisan politics while facing an abysmal public opinion. But things will get even worse before the ship is righted.
At least that is the message David Schweikhardt delivered at the Ag Business Conference at Arkansas State University on Wednesday (Feb. 13). Schweikhardt, professor of Agriculture Economics at Michigan State University, first explained how the country has arrived at such a contentious point.
Chief among the problems is the bleeding over of a parliamentary political system into the American system of separation of powers.
“The balance of power in a parliamentary (political) system is that advancing the interests or preferences of the majority is the main objective. The majority votes, the majority wins and you’ll have a majority policy.”
In a separation of power system, “the protection of the minority interests and preferences is the main priority. We all say, ‘The system must have checks and balances.’ (That’s) another way to say, ‘You get to do what you want unless I have the power to block you to protect my interests.’”
To back his views, Schweikhardt pointed to a recently-released book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, authored by the American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution.
“Ornstein argues that in a parliamentary system, parties are ‘ideologically coherent, identified and adversarial.’ They are not intended to cooperate.
“In a separation of power system, the system is designed to make it difficult for majorities to act in order to protect minority interests.”
The authors then conclude that if you have parliamentary style parties in a separation of powers system, “it is a formula for willful obstruction and policy irresolution. … It is impossible for that to work.”
Schweikhardt then presented a chart of lawmakers – rated most liberal to most conservative – from 1982 and 2011. The differences were striking. “The chart shows that in 1982 the most conservative Democrat was more conservative than a large number of Republicans. The same was true of the most liberal Republican compared to Democrats. In 1982, there was a large range of overlap between the two parties.”
By 2011, there was no such overlap. “It was zero. If you want to put it in terms we often hear: We got rid of the RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) and the DINOs (Democrats in Name Only) and we’re ‘pure’ now.”
Such purity comes at a high cost, however. “Now that we’re pure, there’s no space to operate. There’s no place for compromise…
“You’d think, with all that and the unpopularity of Congress being unable to get things done, there would be a price to be paid. And there is, in a way.”
Schweikhardt then flashed an actual, recent poll on the screen. Respondents were provided a list of things and people and asked how they rate when compared to Congress. Backed by much audience laughter, Schweikhardt revealed that Congress is less popular than lice, Brussels sprouts, NFL referees, and colonoscopies. Congress can take solace only from beating the Kardashians.
“You’d think that with those kinds of numbers, no (lawmaker’s seat) would be safe.”
In fact, the opposite is true. Schweikhardt quoted well-known pollster Nate Silver: “Congress has never been more partisan but there have never been so few members at risk of losing their seats. If members of Congress have little chance of being punished at the polls for refusing to compromise, there should be no reason to expect them to do so.”
This situation has “led to our biggest episode of ‘hostage-taking,’” said Schweikhardt. “The biggest example of hostage-taking was the 2011 debate over the debt limit – whether to increase the limit or refuse to increase it and send the country towards some kind of default.”
After the crisis was over, lawmakers admitted they’d gained concessions by threatening to ruin the country’s finances.
“This doesn’t make any sense. It’s like the scene in Blazing Saddles where the new sheriff comes to town. Everybody pulls their guns on him and the sheriff eventually pulls his own gun and says if he’s not welcome he’ll blow his own head off.”
When such tactics produce desired results in Congress, “Who knows what kind of chaos it could unleash? … When it was all over, it was very clear that some (lawmakers) were serious, were willing to take the plunge on default.”
Not long after, one of the consequences of the political brinksmanship arose when rating agency Standard and Poor’s “issued their downgrade of the U.S. debt rating from AAA to AA.” The reasoning behind the downgrade wasn’t because of the country’s huge deficit, because of the recession or because, “we’ll be Greece. So why did they downgrade us? ‘We lowered our long-term rating of the U.S. because we believe the long controversy over raising the debt ceiling and delayed fiscal policies will remain a contentious and fitful process.’”
The unspoken message from Standard and Poors, said Schweikhardt, is “’You want to govern yourselves like a third-world country, we’ll rate you that way.’”
The latest national elections also revealed that the power of the farm bill has diminished as the coalition between agriculture and food stamp proponents is fraying.
“There were a lot of predictions that ‘Oh, Republicans will pay the political price for not passing the farm bill.’ That didn’t have a single effect on a single race except for, maybe, the North Dakota senate race.”
So what now?
“Once the hostage-taking begins you’ve got to think about whether or not to negotiate with the hostage-takers.” Such negotiations are tricky because they, “encourage hostage-taking, is what we’ve always told ourselves.”
The debt limit debate has been put off until May. However, the sequester and continuing budget resolution expires in March.
Schweikhardt expects the Republicans to continue recent tactics. First will come a fight over sequestration, next over the continuing resolution. “Then, ‘if (the debt limit) is the last hostage we’ve got, we’ll take that one.’”
What about the idea being floated of increasing the debt limit for only one to three months at a time? “Imagine that! Going through the debt limit discussion every three months. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
As for farm policy, Schweikhardt argues that “Congressional support for the farm bill has never been so fragile in the modern era as it is right now.”
Further, the farm/nutrition program coalition is fragmenting. “We’re on the verge of making the food stamp/nutrition issue an ideological question. Remember what the 1973 coalition was: ‘We’ll give you some extra food stamp eligibility if we get higher (farm program) payment limits.’ If that becomes an ideological question … and the 1973 coalition is dead, how do we pass any farm bill?”
This isn’t about one party versus another, said Schweikhardt. “We’ve gotten ourselves into this position in a very bipartisan way.”