Summer Camp Trust Fall Exercises Won’t Fix Washington
I’m very glad that during the President’s press conference on the sequester Jessica Yellin asked, “Couldn’t you just have them down here and refuse to let them leave the room until you have a deal?” because it encapsulates this idiotic strand of thinking which is currently very popular among many pundits.
There seems to be this belief that if only Obama gave Boehner a hug or Pelosi spent more time complimenting McConnell on his ties we would get more bipartisan legislation. They act as if Congress is just a bunch of teenagers at summer camp, and if only they would do a series of trust falls they would all work so much better together.
While egos in Washington are huge, egos are not what drives decision making. Every major player has strong ideological, political and policy concerns. You don’t need to agree with their position, just understand they are what actually control the process.
Republicans don’t think the status quo, i.e. the sequester, is good for country. That said, Republicans have heard the Democrats offer and concluded that the sequester is still better than any alternative the Democrats would accept. Similarly Democrats have heard the Republican offer and decided they too prefer the status quo. This is why nothing has happen. There is an honest disagreement and both sides consider doing nothing to be the least bad outcome. It is the result of a very basic cost-benefit calculation on both sides.
Obama foolishly tried to break this basic impasse by creating the sequester. The plan was to purposely make the status quo worse so that his grand bargain would finally seem better by comparison. Obama only succeeded in needlessly making the government worse, but not terrible enough, to encourage a deal.
Theoretically there are many ways to fix the dynamic which currently prevents Washington from getting things done. You can try to convince one side they are wrong. You can try convince the American people one side is wrong so they stop winning elections. You can change the election rules to make divided government less likely. Last election Democrats got more votes than the Republicans for the House but won fewer seats. Many democracies use election rules that make that impossible. You can reform the design of our government to eliminate the possibility of divided government all together, like in many parliamentary systems.
What doesn’t work though is idiotic ideas like locking everyone in a room, sharing a beer, or mandatory bipartisan sleepover parties. The sides knew the other’s position. The problem is simply that they fundamentally disagree and our government as currently set up requires broad agreement to enact changes.
Photo by Todd vanGoethem under Creative Commons license