Impeachment push is symptom of underlying problems
Democrats bridle at the notion that the effort to impeach the president has distracted from the regular activities of Congress. Thus, Senator Bernie Sanders asserted in the 5th Democratic primaries debate that “Congress can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time.” Transcript, p. 4.
In other words, we can deal with Trump's corruption, but we also have to stand up for the working families of this country. We also have to stand up to the fact that our political system is corrupt, dominated by a handful of billionaires, and that our economy is rigged with three people owning more wealth than the bottom half of America. We can do it all when we rally the American people in the cause of justice.
Really? On issue after issue, Congress has been getting very little real work done of late. Deficits & debt – border security – infrastructure – gun laws - you name it. And with the exception of the Republican tax cuts in 2017, we’d be hard pressed to cite any major legislation that has been passed in the past three years.
This sorry record can’t simply be blamed on the president either, because the substandard performance of Congress became evident long before businessman/celebrity Donald Trump came down an escalator with his wife on June 16, 2015 and announced what was generally deemed an unlikely White House bid. See, e.g., our four part series on Government Run Amok Disease, Nov.-Dec. 2009.
Struck by indications that the U.S. system of government is no longer operating effectively – crucial issues ignored, bad ideas entertained, proposals presented deceptively, dissent dismissed – we decided to analyze the situation.
This entry will review several egregious examples of congressional inaction and discuss some of the underlying causes for political gridlock.
1. Budget system - Have the members of Congress passed any of the dozen appropriation bills that were supposed to be in place before Fiscal Year 2020 began on October 1? Nope, they’re operating on a continuing resolution. That’s no surprise, as our national legislature has only met this deadline four times (for FY 1977, 1989, 1995 & 1997) since the congressional budget rules were adopted. Congress has long struggled to pass spending bills on time, Drew Desilver, pewresearch.org, 1/16/18.
Extended just before Thanksgiving; the current CR is due to expire on December 20 (by which time FY 2020 will be 22% over) and will probably be extended again before the budget paperwork is completed. Trump signs continuing resolution, Nicole Grysko, federalnewsnetwork.com, 11/21/19.
The reported sticking point is border fencing. Hmm, that’s what triggered the longest government shutdown on record (from 12/23/18 to 1/25/19). The amounts requested (some $5B per year) seem relatively insignificant in an annual budget of over $4 trillion, so why can’t the two sides reach an understanding about the matter?
Underscoring this rather obvious question, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019 cleared the way for an across the board boost in so-called “discretionary spending” (total budget minus “mandatory” spending for entitlement programs, etc. and interest expense) that supposedly resolved differences of opinion about overall spending levels. Latest budget deal: faster process, similar results, 7/29/19.
2. Multiemployer pension plans – Almost all of these plans (promising pension benefits for some 10 million Americans) are significantly underfunded, with the federal government seen as the logical savior even though it didn’t create the problem. The outlook keeps getting bleaker, and Congress appointed a joint select committee in early 2018 to study the matter and recommend a response. The JSC members attended meetings, heard testimony, etc. and drafted a report that apparently wouldn’t have solved the problem (aside from ensuring pensioners would continue to get paid). JSC multiemployer's pension draft proposal would do more harm than good, Rachel Greszler, heritage.org, 11/28/18.
JSC Co-Chairs Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) & Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) subsequently announced that “meaningful progress toward a bipartisan proposal [had been made] and work will continue.” Press release, 11/29/18. (Note: Sen. Hatch had not run for reelection in 2018, and he has since retired from the Senate.)
A number of conservative organizations (including SAFE) recently urged Congress not to bail out the multiemployer pension plans given the substantial price tag involved and the bad precedent that would be set re the looming insolvency of many state and local pension plans. Coalition letter to members of Congress, 10/15/19.
Underfunded pensions are a serious problem affecting private businesses, state and local governments, and their workers. Yet taxpayers have not caused these problems – pension managers have. Many pension plans in the multi-employer system face severe financial shortfalls and, on the whole, the system can only pay 42 cents of every dollar in promised benefits. Managers of both the pension funds and businesses created this sad problem; they should be accountable and find solutions that don’t simply transfer the burden on the taxpayers.
At last report, a multiemployer plan bailout was being worked on in the Senate that would be somewhat less onerous than a bill previously passed by the House which the Congressional Budget Office scored as costing $55 billion over the next 30 years. (N.B. Never mind how the situation shows up on the books of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the multiemployer retirement plans are currently underfunded by some $600 billion in the aggregate.) GOP senators unveil plan to shore up multiemployer pension plan, Sean Higgins, Washington Examiner, 11/20/19.
"Chairman [Chuck] Grassley and I have a balanced proposal to shore up the PBGC’s role as an insurance company with a limited infusion of taxpayer dollars instead of an open-ended bailout and institute important structural reforms so this does not happen again,” [Sen. Lamar] Alexander said. The senators did not state how many taxpayer dollars would be needed.
Reasonable minds may differ as to the appropriate solution to this problem, but the continued failure to take action is inexcusable. “Kicking the can down the road” is the essence of bad management, and it mirrors what is happening on many other problems, from floundering entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare to soaring Postal Service deficits.
3. USMCA – Having threatened to withdraw from the North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that was implemented in 1994, the administration has drafted a replacement trade agreement with Mexico and Canada (US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA). Whether or not the USMCA is far superior to NAFTA as the president maintains, it is strongly supported by the business community and merits congressional approval to ensure the stability of US trading relationships with these neighboring countries.
House Democrats have expressed willingness to support USMCA, presumably with some tweaks for which they could take credit, and there don’t seem to be any major issues outstanding. The timing keeps getting pushed back, however, and Republicans complain that Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been stalling. GOP accuses Democrats of moving goalposts on Trump USMCA deal, Sean Higgins, Washington Examiner, 11/22/19.
"Every time the Trump administration meets the speaker halfway, she tries to move the goalposts another 10 yards," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday. McConnell made his comments the day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quashed hopes for a quick vote on the USMCA. The announcement walked back a statement by Pelosi last week that a vote on the trade deal, which would replace the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, was "imminent." Pelosi made the statement following a meeting with AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a critic of the deal.
There is no valid reason to delay a resolution of this matter, in our opinion, and what’s more the US needs to reassure Mexico, Canada and the business community that there aren’t going to be any drastic changes in the established trade patterns. Speaker Pelosi’s involvement in the negotiations with Mexico seems unusual, international diplomacy is normally the president’s responsibility, but President Lopez Obrador has written her two letters at this point in an effort to gain her support. Pelosi wants to make Mexico pay for Trump deal? James Freeman, Wall Street Journal, 11/29/19.
The Speaker of the House who called a border wall with Mexico “an immorality” is still sitting on a Mexican request to approve a new trade agreement. What is the morality of ignoring this key priority of our southern neighbors?
After Sen. McConnell’s comment, Speaker Pelosi softened her rhetoric – but there’s still no guarantee of a timely vote on the USMCA. At the risk of sounding cynical, we predict that this matter won’t be resolved for months. Pelosi says Democrats “within range” of agreement on Trump USMCA, Sean Higgins, Washington Examiner, 11/25/19.
4. Underlying causes – SAFE’s 2009 essay about Government Run Amok Disease suggested (p. 23 et seq.) that the president and Congress have different capabilities and play complementary roles in the overall conduct of government.
If the U.S. system of government was likened to a motor vehicle, Congress might be seen as the brakes. It can block proposed programs by declining to provide the required funding. It can also kill established programs by withdrawing funding, although this power has been exercised all too infrequently.
When it comes to new undertakings or changes in policy, on the other hand, Congress is not equipped to provide effective leadership. With 500+ principals and an unwieldy structure, it has great difficulty making and implementing decisions. No wonder cynics say there are two things one should never watch, making sausage and making legislation.
The executive branch can act as the motor of government because its members all report to the president. *** [However,] presidents do not invariably provide good leadership – as has been demonstrated time and again – and someone needs to hold them accountable. As we said in last week’s entry, after reviewing what happened after the Republican Party electoral comeback in 1994, “never place too much trust in any leader, group of leaders, or political party.”
We appreciate the advice of Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Paper 70 that “energy in the executive” is a hallmark of good government, and also that it is better to vest the executive power in one person (the president) than in a council. As Hamilton also says, however, the legislature plays a key role in setting as opposed to executing policy.
“In the legislature, promptitude of decision is oftener an evil than a benefit. The differences of opinion, and the jarrings of parties in that department of the government, though they may sometimes obstruct salutary plans, yet often promote deliberation and circumspection; and serve to check excesses in the majority.”
Note the potential for gridlock if the president (the motor) and leaders of one or both houses of Congress (the brakes) are from different political parties. And since 2007 (when SAFE’s blog was launched), divided government has been the norm rather than the exception.
From the standpoint of enacting legislation, the most productive period was 2009-10 when Democrats not only controlled the White House but also enjoyed a comfortable majority in both houses of Congress. Major bills were a massive fiscal stimulus package in 2009, followed by GovCare and GovFinance (aka Dodd-Frank) in 2010. Also, a cap and trade proposal to curb the use of fossil fuels for the production of electrical power came close; it was passed by the House but defeated due to Democratic defections in the Senate.
None of these bills harmonized with SAFE’s smaller government agenda, as was duly conveyed in the “government run amok” essays. We also advocated competing policy proposals even though they never got anywhere. See, e.g., In search of real healthcare reform, April 2009.
Legislation can be enacted during years of divided government, and the resulting give and take may potentially be constructive. Indeed, one of the major arguments against GovCare was that this was the first major entitlement program that had ever been created without support from both sides of the aisle.
Experience has shown, however, that bipartisan bills aren’t necessarily beneficial. The last major energy bill, enacted with a show of bipartisanship in December 2007, resulted in the mandated use of ethanol motor fuel with disastrous economic and environmental effects. Renewable fuel standard is an unjustifiable giveaway, 6/10/19.
Also, a widening ideological divide between the two major party has made bipartisan compromise increasingly difficult. Consider these findings from in-depth polling and analysis by Pew Research (years 1994, 2004 & 2014). Mapping a perplexing political landscape, 7/21/14.
There is a growing ideological rift between the two parties, particularly among those members most engaged and active in political matters (as shown by not only registering to vote but also following the issues, writing letters, making political contributions, etc.). 38% of politically engaged Democrats are consistent liberals, today, and 33% of politically engaged Republicans are consistent conservatives.
Democratic and Republican views once overlapped to a considerable extent, but this is no longer true. 92% of Republicans are now to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.
Mutual antipathy is on the upswing, and it goes beyond mere disagreement. Thus, 27% of Democrats profess to see the Republican Party as a threat to the nation’s well-being, while 36% of Republicans have the same view of the Democratic Party.
The last major attempt at bipartisan legislation was made in 2013 following reelection of President Obama. A “gang of eight” senators drafted a comprehensive immigration “reform” bill, which passed by a comfortable majority in the senior chamber only to die in the Republican-controlled House.
This outcome was understandable as the bill in question wasn’t designed to solve the basic problem – stopping illegal immigration. Immigration reform, June 2013. But failure ensured that said problem would continue to fester.
Proponents say S. 744 would represent an improvement over the status quo and is likely the best deal we can get. Critics say it would work out like the 1986 amnesty bill, i.e., authorize the naturalization of millions of illegal immigrants without fixing the problem. [Based on a detailed review of the bill, SAFE agreed with the critics.]
Stymied in getting legislation enacted, the Obama administration fell back on increasingly aggressive administrative actions – notably including environmental regulations such as the Clean Power Plan and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to confer rights on children whose parents had brought them into this country illegally.
Even after Republicans won a Senate majority in the 2014 elections, they couldn’t get their own legislation through Congress due to aggressive use of the Senate filibuster rules backed up by presidential vetoes when necessary. The government, it seemed, was growing ever more dysfunctional. President slams Republicans for legislative inaction, 9/20/16.
The outcome of the 2016 election brought back united government for the first time in six years, but the Republican margin in the Senate was very slim so proposed bills (notably repeal of GovCare) could be doomed by a handful of defectors. To make matters worse, Democrats engaged in unprecedented efforts to drown out or block GOP proposals by “whatever means necessary.” A disturbing political climate, 7/2/18.
Only one major piece of conservative legislation – the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 – made it through the legislative maze. And as the president’s other legislative proposals fizzled, he (like President Obama before him) often resorted to executive actions that fueled controversy and/or tested the limits of his constitutional powers.
Democrats won a House majority in the 2018 elections, strengthening their political hand and enabling them to launch an impeachment inquiry. Small wonder that so very little is being accomplished in DC of late.
Queries: (1) How much longer can the world’s leading nation limp along with a government that only functions sporadically and often produces subpar answers? (2) What can be done to make things better?