In a Monday, Sept. 2, 2013, photo, traffic moves across the George Washington Bridge, in Fort Lee, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Several of Chris Christie's former subordinates have been indicted in connection with the traffic jam in Fort Lee in 2013 that has hampered the governor's presidential ambitions. The journalist Jonathan Rauch is dismayed. Government, he writes in the Los Angeles Times, "works best when politicians can help supporters and punish defectors." His argument for that counterintuitive conclusion:

Machines are hierarchies that hold politicians accountable to each other.

In a governing system as fragmented as ours, they're essential for what the great political scientist James Q. Wilson called "assembling power in the formal government." Parties and political leaders cajole their people into line not by issuing commands (in our system, political leaders don't have a lot of direct power over other politicians) but by using intricate reward systems. They use everything from plum committee assignments to fundraising help and favored positions on the ballot.

Machines are the kitchens where compromises are cooked up and where agreements, once made, are kept. Important legislation such as immigration reform or a budget deal needs support from a wide array of politicians, which leaders can't achieve without making complicated trades. The process may not always be pretty, but the alternative isn't cleaner government — it's chaos.

Rauch argues that well-intentioned efforts to reduce corruption in politics have created that chaos in Congress, where the Republican leadership has had trouble with the basic task of counting votes.

Since it looks as though money in politics will be a crucial issue in next year's presidential campaign, it's worth thinking about whether proposals to change the system will just exacerbate gridlock.

Reformers denounced the tenfold increase in the limit on individual donations to political parties that Congress passed late last year, for example, a provision that will strengthen Democratic and Republican leaders alike, with the potential to produce more cohesion and more compromise.

On the other hand, by strengthening the parties, this change counteracts the Citizens United decision. That ruling allowed outside organizations and individual donors to sponsor lawmakers who are more or less independent of the parties' leadership, as Jamelle Bouie explained a few years ago at The American Prospect. Overturning that decision might well help Congress function better.


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What's in Wonkbook: 1) Negative GDP figures 2) Opinions, including Porter, Vinik and Carney on inequality 3) Surveillance planes monitored the protests in Baltimore, and more

1. Top story: Economy may have contracted

Growth was likely negative in the first quarter. "Trade figures released by the Commerce Department on Wednesday suggest gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic output, contracted in the first three months of the year. Last week, Commerce said GDP grew at a paltry 0.2% seasonally adjusted annual rate from January to March. Those preliminary figures were based on some incomplete data, including estimated March trade numbers. ... The effect will likely be a big downward revision for GDP when updated figures are released May 29. Exports add to the top-line number while imports subtract." Jeffrey Sparshott in The Wall Street Journal.

Chart of the day: The trade deficit increased sharply in the early part of the year. The Wall Street Journal.

At least one Fed official is worried. "Soft economic data in the first three months of 2015 should give Federal Reserve officials pause when it comes to raising interest rates, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Narayana Kocherlakota said Tuesday. 'It’s only one quarter, and you don’t make policy based on three months of data, but it is a matter for concern,' Mr. Kocherlakota said at a public forum here. ... [He] has repeatedly argued that the Fed shouldn’t raise rates in 2015, often pointing to subdued U.S. inflation that has undershot the Fed’s 2% annual target for nearly three years." Ben Leubsdorf and Kelly Schoenfelder in The Wall Street Journal.

IRWIN: Blame the strong dollar. "The good news, such as it is, is that the damage should be at least partly self-correcting. The dollar index (which measures the value of the dollar against six other major currencies) rose about 25 percent from the start of July 2014 through March 13. The effect of that stronger dollar is still rippling through all sorts of trade arrangements, from American exporters struggling with de facto higher costs to imported goods looking cheaper in the United States and thus gaining advantage over domestic-made goods. ... The growing sense that the Fed will bide its time, combined with some signs of life in the European economy, has driven a roughly 5 percent decline in the dollar since March 15. In other words, the fact that the strong dollar is pinching growth has made the dollar a little less strong, which should help limit the economic damage in the months ahead." The New York Times.

O'BRIEN: Is the economy in a recession? "It depends on what you mean by 'recession.' If you're talking about the usual rule-of-thumb of two consecutive quarters of negative growth, then, yes, there's probably a 5 percent chance that we've fallen into one. But if you mean an economic decline that actually makes unemployment go up, then, no, we don't have to worry about the r-word. We just have to worry about a new normal of slow growth that might dip into negative territory every now and then even during the good times. In other words, about turning Japanese. ... As Japan's workforce has shrunk, its economy has grow so little in the good times that it doesn't take much to make it look like a bad time. The U.S. doesn't face such a dramatic demographic decline, but productivity growth has been so feeble the past few years that, taken together with the Boomers hitting retirement age, our trend growth is probably a lot lower than it used to be, too." The Washington Post.

2. Top opinions

PORTER: What can be done about inequality? "Over the last four decades the debate in Washington about poverty and inequality has been bogged down in a somewhat pointless, often surreal debate about the size of government and the amount spent on behalf of the poor. ... And yet there are other tools. In the furious partisan bickering, the debate has bypassed all the other ways the government affects the distribution of the nation’s prosperity, selectively placing its thumb on the scales. The trick to achieving a more equitable society might simply be to turn the government from an active participant in widening inequality, to one that at least seeks — through norms, laws, regulations — to narrow the gap." The New York Times.

VINIK: Republicans still don't have a policy agenda beyond repealing Obamacare. "The Republican Party's one Big Idea remains the same: to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And that alone overshadows all of the ideas on the right—smart or dumb, reformist or conservative, realistic or pie-in-the-sky—for addressing income inequality and helping the middle class. ... While most GOP candidates are paying lip service to income inequality, there is almost no substance behind their rhetoric. Nowhere is this more notable than the Republican Party’s focus on repealing Obamacare. The Brookings Institute found that the health care law’s benefits accrue entirely to the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution... It's a victory, of sorts, for the left that Republicans even raise the problem of inequality—as opposed to denying its importance altogether—but that's substantively meaningless until the Republican presidential candidates deliver policies to reduce it." The New Republic.

CARNEY: Carly Fiorina understands how government protects big business. "Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard executive and failed Senate candidate from California, entered the presidential race on Monday. For months before her official campaign announcement, Fiorina trained her fire on an insider political class that enriches itself from big government to the detriment of everyone else. ... Unlike Chris Christie, Fiorina has said she would abolish the Export-Import Bank. Unlike Scott Walker and Jeb Bush, Fiorina went to Iowa and seemed to knock the ethanol mandate: 'It's not the government's job to determine market access,' she said. ... She has shown she can articulate the case for free enterprise that can best appeal to the middle, especially working-class voters in swing states like Ohio. Government regulation and spending tilts the playing field towards the well-connected political class, crushing opportunity for entrepreneurs and rewarding the cronies." The Washington Examiner.

Let the immigrants in, writes Philippe Legrain, a former economic adviser to the president of the European Commission. "What if Europe — or the United States — took a different approach: allow people to come and go freely? ... Open doors tend to be revolving ones. America’s historical experience confirms that. Until the 1950s, when the United States scarcely controlled its border with Mexico, Mexicans crossed to do seasonal work, but few settled. Most people prefer not to uproot themselves. Moreover, wages that migrants earn in a rich country stretch further in a poor one. And someone who works abroad has higher status back home, whereas immigrants start at the bottom of the social heap in a rich country.Perversely, American efforts to close the border led to a surge in permanent settlement: People rushed to move before controls tightened, then stayed for good. Europe’s experience is similar." The New York Times.

3. In case you missed it

Law enforcement flew surveillance planes over West Baltimore during protests and riots. "Discovery of the flights — which involved at least two airplanes and the assistance of the FBI — has prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to demand answers about the legal authority for the operations and the reach of the technology used. Planes armed with the latest surveillance systems can monitor larger areas than police helicopters and stay overhead longer, raising novel civil liberties issues that have so far gotten little scrutiny from courts. Civil libertarians have particular concern about surveillance technology that can quietly gather images across dozens of city blocks — in some cases even square miles at a time — inevitably capturing the movements of people under no suspicion of criminal activity into a government dragnet." Craig Timberg in The Washington Post.

Democratic strategists think opposition to free trade will win votes. "Democratic officials already are planning to make trade a central issue in Ohio during the Senate race between Sen. Rob Portman and former Gov. Ted Strickland. Party leaders have polling data showing that trade and outsourcing are deeply resonant issues for voters in the state, and the most potent line of attack against the Bush administration's former trade representative. And in other Rust Belt battlegrounds across the Midwest, from Pennsylvania to Missouri, Democrats are hoping that the issue will linger into the presidential campaign year. ... What makes this trade fight so consequential is that the path for Democrats to regain control of the upper chamber runs through those populist-minded Rust Belt voters that have drifted away from the party in recent years." Josh Kraushaar in National Journal.

The Democratic presidential primary will include six debates. "The Democratic National Committee on Tuesday announced that the party's primary election season will feature six officially-sanctioned debates, a light schedule for a thin Democratic field -- one that stands in striking contrast to the lineup for the already-crowded race for the GOP nomination. ... The four earliest voting states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada -- will each host a debate starting this fall, in conjunction with the national party, local groups, local media and national media." Jose A. DelReal in The Washington Post.

Regulators and financial institutions still aren't ready for another "flash crash." "The Consolidated Audit Trail, or CAT, originally was conceived as a way to enable regulators to monitor stock and options orders in real time and zero in on manipulators quickly. After the flash crash—which occurred May 6, 2010, and saw some big stocks lose nearly all their value before markets rebounded—the CAT was seen as a crucial step in protecting the markets from future swings. Yet the 10 organizations overseeing the process, including Nasdaq OMX Group Inc. and Intercontinental Exchange Inc., which operates the New York Stock Exchange, still haven’t chosen a firm to build and run it, and a final plan hasn’t been approved by the Securities and Exchange Commission. There is also no consensus on how to pay for the project, which could face costs ranging from about $150 million to more than $500 million in its first five years of operation, according to a planning document filed last year." Bradley Hope and Andrew Ackerman in The Wall Street Journal.