Isn’t it time to admit our system is broken?
My Bloomberg column today is about what happens when Congress can’t agree to act. The standard theory is that nothing happens. Congress simply gridlocks. It paralyzes. The standard theory is wrong.
The reality is that when Congress can’t agree to act, extracongressional action happens. Special panels are set up to cut costs in health care and reduce the deficit. The Federal Reserves takes on a larger role in economic policy, the Environmental Protection Agency takes on a larger role in climate policy, and the Department of Education takes on a larger role in education policy. Government doesn’t stop working so much as it stops working the way it was designed to work and begins innovating ad hoc methods of getting things done.
Over the past few days, Mitch McConnell has been telling anyone who will listen that there will never again be a clean increase in the debt limit. This created “a new template,” he told CNBC’s Larry Kudlow. It was just “the first step.” In other comments, he’s been even more piquant. The debt ceiling is not a hostage you want “to take a chance at shooting,” but it is “a hostage that’s worth ransoming. And it focuses the Congress on something that must be done.”
The problem with taking hostages, of course, is that sometimes things go wrong and they end up getting shot. But put that aside for a moment. McConnell is arguing that deficit reduction is something that must be done, but can’t be done through normal legislative channels. For the political system to do something as difficult as deficit reduction requires a consequence as unthinkable as default.
So this, then, is another example of what happens when Congress can’t agree to act: Those in Congress who want action — and they are of both parties — manufacture crises in order to force it. It’s not that things don’t get done so much as that they get done in the most dangerous, insane and reckless way. And if that fails and they don’t get done, they trigger awful, unimaginable crises.
At some point, isn’t it time to admit that this system is broken?