Politics is generally more complicated than the ideas people have about it. Paul Waldman of The Washington Post has a column today called “Six things people believe about politics that are totally wrong”. I wouldn’t go that far, so I’ve added a few comments in italics.
“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.
Except that legislators often don’t know exactly what they’re voting on, for a variety of reasons. They rely on their staffs and lobbyists to tell them what’s in a bill; they wait for Congressional leaders to tell them how to vote; and the legislative process is often too complicated and disorganized.
“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.
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.
Nevertheless, there is wasteful spending that isn’t trivial at all and that deserves more scrutiny. Consider what Charles Pierce of Esquire has written about the F-35 fighter plane, production of which is ten years behind schedule:
This turkey is nowhere near the national disgrace it deserves to be. It simply does not work, which has not stopped the U.S. defense industry from peddling it around the globe…..There was a time when its ejector seats decapitated the crash-test dummies. There was that other time when it could not fly in a thunderstorm because its fuel tanks would explode if struck by lightning. [A] General Accounting Office report was completely merciless. It opened a window into the Alice In Wonderland world of the defense budget.
“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.
Yet the government also borrows for short-term operations. And when times are good, balancing the budget and even running a surplus would make sense. The Clinton administration did it four years in a row, the only four years it’s happened since 1970 [Wikipedia].
“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.
Or building fleets of fighter aircraft. This commonplace wisdom really is totally wrong.
“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.
Although too often, politicians squabble in order to score political points. In recent years, it’s been Republican politicians making the most trouble, in order to rile up their supporters and get on Fox News.
“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.
A grain of truth here is that Congress would benefit from having more “statesmen”, members more dedicated to the public good than keeping their jobs. Mr. Waldman could have added “self-preservation” to his list of negatives.
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.