Washington’s leadership failure on the debt ceiling


At the very root of Congress’s failure to fix the budget deficit is the two parties’ fundamental difference of opinion on the role of government in modern society.
June 27, 2011

This piece is part of a leadership roundtable with Post columnist Steven Pearlstein and five expert contributors — Governor Mitch Daniels, former Senate leader Tom Daschle, Harvard professor John P. Kotter, former Congressman Slade Gorton and Wharton professor Stuart Diamond — about the leadership issues at the core of the U.S. debt debacle.

Dwight Eisenhower once described leadership as the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.

He could have been talking about Congress. Having been on both ends of that definition of leadership in scores of policy negotiations over the years, it appears to be getting harder with each Congressional session and with each new freshman class. It is especially true regarding past and present negotiations on the federal budget and this year’s drama on raising the debt limit.

In at least four of the past ten years alone, Congress has failed to produce any budget at all. That is because, in large part, neither presidents nor congressional leaders were able to execute Eisenhower’s description and get the other side to do something because they wanted to do it. 

At the very root of this failure is the two parties’ fundamental difference of opinion on the role of government in modern society. The Republicans’ view that we must severely limit its role has led them to pledge, almost universally, not to support new taxes that would fund an enlarged government at any level. Just last Thursday, the Republican congressional negotiators pulled out of the deficit reduction talks because of Democrats’ insistence that taxes be included as part of the final agreement. Meanwhile the Democrats’ view that government’s role is essential in making society fairer, especially during economic downturns, has led them to oppose any major change in our national health and retirement programs.


Tom Daschle, now a senior adviser at DLA Piper and a cofounder of the Bipartisan Policy Center, was one of the longest serving Senate Democratic leaders in history, and the only one to have served twice as both majority and minority leader.

Yet, policymakers have very limited choices. Most realize that they can only marginally reduce the debt and deficit by cutting domestic discretionary spending programs. That leaves only three tough options: cut defense, cut mandatory spending (Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) or raise taxes.

The result has been a political leadership standoff, exacerbated by four major factors.  

First, both party bases have become more demanding and far more successful in maintaining a disciplined ideological rigidity in these debates. Republicans have been completely committed, for example, to taking off the table higher tax rates—even rates that would merely approach Reagan administration levels—despite the fact we’re seeing the lowest revenue as a percent of GDP in more than fifty years.

Second, special interests from all sectors have applied immense pressure on members of Congress to protect their priorities. Given the Citizens’ United ruling by the Supreme Court, the opportunity for money to inundate the policymaking process is now completely unlimited.

Third, most in Congress suffer from a Washington political reality that goes like this: Repeat something often enough and it becomes fact.

Nothing better exemplifies this than the often repeated assertion that if waste, fraud, abuse, out-of-control spending, subsidies and foreign aid were simply eliminated, we could easily bring our federal budget back into balance. The truth is that two wars, the Bush/Obama tax cuts and a recession the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Great Depression, in addition to the highest health and military costs in the world, are largely responsible for the debt we have incurred over the past decade.

The fourth and final factor undermining our chances for success in budget negotiations has to do with political control of the federal government. In the past two decades, the presidency has swung back and forth three times; the Congress, four times. In recent decades, every election has offered the party out of power a good chance and hope of coming back. As a result, very few decisions are made without some recognition of the impact they would have on prospects for either gaining or retaining the presidency or the majority in Congress. Party caucus meetings have become little more than pep rallies. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell’s early revelation that his most important goal is defeating President Obama in 2012 is merely one of hundreds of examples of the consequence of this political and legislative environment.

Given these factors, leaders on both sides are forced to use brinksmanship as their trump card to move the other side–which is exactly what we see playing out over the necessity to raise the debt limit. This is the ’gun to the head’ version of Eisenhower’s leadership approach: it’s one that instead says, “Want what I want done, or the consequences will even be worse.” 

Of course, all of this affects the quality of governance in profound ways. Our inability to find common ground on these central policy questions—not to mention on energy, health care, education and trade—undermines the quality of our democracy as well as the quality of life of every American.

The stakes now could not be higher. Our leaders at the highest levels, from the president to the speaker to the House and Senate majority leaders, need to demonstrate that they fully understand the grave risks of failure by personally entering into intense, non-stop negotiations immediately.

There have been times in the past when our national political leaders have done exactly that. They have demonstrated courage and a willingness to compromise even under the most extraordinary of circumstances. President George H. W. Bush was relentlessly criticized and ridiculed for showing such leadership in the beginning of the ‘90s. Some even have suggested that he lost the following election because of it.

But in so doing, he set a standard that would be repeated at least twice in the next five years. In those cases, both sides walked away believing they succeeded in getting the other to want what they wanted, too. And by the end of that decade, we had a balanced budget for three years in a row.

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