In testifying before a special joint “supercommittee” of Congress charged with reducing the federal deficit, Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff for President Clinton, bluntly warned, “Collectively, I am worried you are going to fail - fail the country.” He forecasted that without a grand compromise to reduce deficits by $4 trillion, the United States could easily face a tipping point with another reduction in its credit rating and higher interest rates that would cause even larger deficits as the country pays more to borrow money.
His counterpart, former Republican Senator Alan Simpson pleaded with members of the committee saying, “In your gut, you know what you have to do.”
While it was certainly a sobering moment for Republicans and Democrats alike on the committee, it was also very sad. That we have reached the point where modern politicians, with the stakes so high and the situation so dire, must be lectured by their predecessors to fulfill their most basic function as elected representatives is symptomatic of a larger, unsettling shift in our politics.
It seems the days of grand compromises in the proverbial “smoke-filled back rooms” are over. While some would certainly welcome such a shift in the name of transparency, what has cropped up in its place is a monstrosity of shallowness and intransigence. “Bipartisanship,” ever a buzz word on Capitol Hill, has been so hollowed out that in order to reach any sort of long term agreement on the nation’s debt, Congress had to threaten itself with crippling cuts to defense and social programs if it did not reach a deal. In other words, it had to point a gun at itself because even the threat of long term financial ruin was not enough motivation to compromise.
There are many explanations for this dysfunction, and Congress is simply the most obvious example of it. All the way down to state and local elections, a growing trend is for politicians to sign pledges during campaigns promising never to do certain things like raise taxes or cut a particular program. Faster communication and a 24 hour news cycle have encouraged politicians to talk past each other and repeat short, tired talking points that grossly oversimplify problems. On top of it all, limits on campaign spending by corporations and interest groups were effectively destroyed by the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United ruling. The result is a new breed of elected officials, hamstrung by ill-advised pledges and extreme ideological forces, who seem increasingly incapable of a thoughtful debate and a balanced resolution of differences. The saddest part of all is that we, as an electorate, have rewarded this new breed with political power.
By now you may be thinking that I’m hopelessly disillusioned and that I must be packing my bags for an isolated hut in Fiji. On the contrary, I’m probably too optimistic about our politics for my own good. There are politicians who are still governed by reason. I know there are good men and women, both on Capitol Hill and in legislatures around the country who still believe in compromise. Maybe hidden among them are a few who can make balance and moderation popular again. The question is who are you, and when will you save us from ourselves?