Opinion 6 things people believe about politics that are totally wrong

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) points to a printed copy of the proposed federal omnibus spending legislation for FY 2023 that he brought to a news conference on Dec. 20 with, from left, Republican Sens. Rick Scott (Fla.), Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Mike Lee (Utah). (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Like many billionaires, Elon Musk apparently sees himself as a genius not only in areas where he has real experience but in all things, including politics and government. Which is why he tweeted this about the omnibus spending bill Congress passed last month:

This is a common type of misinformation, one that swirled about with particular intensity regarding the omnibus bill. Not that Musk doesn’t believe it; I’m sure he does. His tweet shows how easy it is to be seduced by ideas that have intuitive appeal but are completely wrong.

Let’s begin with Musk’s assertion and work our way through some other widespread but pernicious ideas about how politics works:

1

“If members of Congress read bills before voting on them, legislation would be better.”

How could anyone oppose that? But the truth is that most legislators usually don’t read the text — and that’s fine. It isn’t because they’re lazy. It’s because legislation involves a specialized type of language, written by experts for purposes that have nothing to do with understanding and wise decision-making. Members should know exactly what they’re voting on, but the text of bills is only tangentially related to that goal.

The omnibus bill runs more than 4,000 pages, because it’s funding our extraordinarily complex government, which does all kinds of things we want it to do, and it is written in arcane legislative language. I don’t care much whether my senators pored over the section on rural electrification and telecommunication loans that specifies this:

For the cost of direct loans as authorized by section 305(d)(2) of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 (7 U.S.C. 935(d)(2)), including the cost of modifying loans, as defined in section 502 of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, cost of money rural telecommunications loans, $3,726,000.

Neither should you. It’s enough that they’ve been told, and are okay with, about $10 billion being spent in that particular section.

2

“If only we stopped wasteful spending, we’d solve most of our problems.”

Waste is bad, after all. And there is plenty of waste in government, just as there’s waste in pretty much every corporation and nonprofit organization everywhere.

But when someone rails against wasteful spending, they seldom specify exactly which spending is supposedly wasteful.

If you press them, they’ll probably cite either spending that’s utterly trivial — some silly-sounding program that spent a few hundred thousand dollars somewhere — or spending that is quite important but they don’t happen to like. Some people think Medicaid is “wasteful,” but the tens of millions of Americans who count on it likely disagree.

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As a corollary, some assert that stopping spending will tame inflation. “The ONLY way to stop soaring inflation is to STOP RECKLESS SPENDING,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) tweeted last month. Sounds reasonable, right? But inflation is declining, not soaring, and while the level of government spending can contribute to inflation, lots of other factors affect it too: interest rates, the resilience of supply chains and the weather, to name a few.

The truth is that people such as Scott who rail against “wasteful spending” want to spend on some things but not others. The omnibus bill contained a staggering $858 billion for the Pentagon. At the current rate of growth, we’ll spend more than $10 trillion on the military over the next decade. Ask Republicans whether we should cut that to tackle inflation and see what they say.

3

“My family balances its budget. Why shouldn’t the government?”

The reason is that the government is not a family or a household. For instance, when times are tough, deficits do, and should, go up. That’s because the government brings in less revenue and has to do more to help people. If the government slashed spending during every recession to balance the budget, it would only make things worse.

Your family also probably borrows money to invest in important long-term projects that cost too much money to pay cash up front — like your home or your education. So should government.

4

“Government should be run like a business.”

But government isn’t a business. It’s not an enterprise devoted to obtaining profits. It does many things that cost money but don’t produce a financial return, like delivering mail to far-flung rural addresses or caring for the sick.

5

“The parties need to stop the partisan squabbling and get things done.”

This is an incredibly common idea, one driven by the presumption that political differences are meaningless. But especially in our polarized age, political differences are incredibly meaningful.

Partisans “squabble” over questions such as whether abortion should be legal, whether taxes for the wealthy should go up or down, what to do about climate change, whether to extend health coverage to more people and whether workers deserve higher pay, to name just a few.

There aren’t nonpartisan answers to these questions just waiting to be seized if people would put aside party loyalties. Those loyalties are driven by deeply held values, and, a lot of the time, conservative and liberal values aren’t compatible.

6

“We need more people in Congress who aren’t politicians.”

You hear this often from first-time candidates, who present their lack of qualifications as their key qualification. Yes, politicians are prey to some bad tendencies — self-aggrandizement, cravenness, short-term thinking — but just as you wouldn’t hire an accountant to rewire your house or an electrician to do your taxes, you need people who understand politics and policy to deal with political and policy questions.

To return to the omnibus spending bill, none of this means there aren’t objectionable things in the bill. There are. But they didn’t get there because members didn’t read the bill, or because anyone was being “reckless,” or because of a deficit of common sense. They were choices, some of which you might like and some of which you won’t. That’s how policymaking works.

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