“It’s such a depressing time for people like you and me,” said my dinner companion on Thursday. I raised a querying eyebrow.
“We’re policy people,” he explained. “And policy is dead.”
Depressing indeed. He had come to Washington from California to offer his expertise on public policy, in a town that has practically given up making any. For our purposes here, it doesn’t really matter what his policy area is; suffice it to say that it involves a lot of human suffering, up to and including untimely death. The sort of thing, in other words, that can make an enormous difference if policymakers get it right.
But his visit had confirmed what we both already knew: Almost no one with the power to make policy is interested in getting it right. They’re interested in talking points that flatter the folk beliefs of their base, and if the data contradicts voter opinion, they’d rather do the wrong thing than the unpopular one.
Or even better, they can do nothing at all. I myself had been on a panel that day, about what would happen to governance once Democrats take control of the House in January. There were mild disagreements about many things, but on one matter we all agreed; the prospects for any major legislation will remain exceedingly dim until at least 2020.
Then again, they wouldn’t have been too bright even if Republicans had held the House.
President Trump was elected with Republicans in full control of Congress, and yet has hardly any durable legislative achievements to his name.
This stunning inaction can be put down to Trump’s political inexperience and lack of interest in policy detail. But that is at best a partial explanation. President Barack Obama had an enthusiastic and experienced policy staff, and a long list of programs he wanted to enact, but as soon as Republicans took Congress, policymaking ground to a halt. As will even the little that the Trump administration had on its wish list, because the moment an agenda requires cooperation from the other party, Washington pronounces it dead on arrival.
There was a time, not that long ago, when legislators tried to, you know, legislate. But over the past 20 years, Congress has lost interest in its allegedly core function. It struggles even with the basic task of keeping the government doing the things it’s already doing. Actual legislation, the kind that provides novel solutions to new problems, is generally dismissed as impossibly ambitious. Especially if passing it requires the cooperation of the other party.
Under the Obama administration, this failure was put down to a peculiarly Republican taste for obstruction. But now that the situations are reversed, congressional Democrats look no more eager to reach across the aisle to find bipartisan compromises. Which suggests that rather than trying to figure out what’s wrong with one party or the other, we need to ask what political incentives are rewarding intransigence rather than cooperation.
There are two answers, both of them discouraging. First, the parties have become more ideological; the average Democrat is much more liberal and the average Republican much more conservative, a separation that makes it harder to forge compromises. Second, as the parties have become more ideological, control of Congress has begun shifting more often. In postwar decades during which Democrats controlled the House, both parties had reason to make what deals they could: Democrats because they’d be held responsible for inaction, and Republicans because they saw no hope of getting anything done any other way.
But now both parties have every reason to wait two years and see if their bargaining position improves. Particularly since more-ideological parties mean their respective bases will regard any compromise as less an unpleasant political necessity than a desecration of sacred principle.
Of course, a certain strain of libertarian might argue that this is all to the good — that they govern best who govern least. But the current gridlock isn’t producing smaller government so much as static government. The same mechanisms that frustrate government expansion also make it impossible to get the government to stop doing things that don’t work. It’s telling that the lone legislative achievement of Trump’s first two years was a substantial tax cut unmoored from matching spending cuts, which means that the rates will ultimately have to be raised again when the government’s debt burden gets too high.
Is there any hope of resurrecting policy from its untimely demise? There’s always hope, because the only ironclad rule of politics is that things change, and quicker than you might think. But in that dinner table conversation the other night, neither of us could name a plausible path to rejuvenation. All we could do was mourn the loss, and reminisce about happier days.