Why American politics keep rewarding failure


For those who have long clamored for a return of bipartisanship in Washington for the sake of the nation, the recent budget deal seems like a welcome news. In reality, however, the deal over time will severely weaken the country’s financial position by piling on unsustainable levels of debt. More importantly, though, it once again reveals our deeply dysfunctional political system whose outputs continue to fall far short of most citizens’ expectations.

We are past due for a sober examination of the incentive structure that drives our political leaders to favor partisan talking points and kick-the-problem-down-the-road stopgaps over reasoned debate and real solutions. A structure that punishes compromise and rewards ideological rigidity. Addressing these incentives is key to ensuring that our leaders can make the difficult compromises necessary in the best interests of the country.

{mosads}We need to incentivize leaders that step up and compromise, rather than remain intransigent and unyielding. Compromise is not a four-letter word — it is the touchstone of our republic. This does not mean compromising values; compromise here means giving something in order to get something. There are, put simply, too many sacred cows and far too few legislators willing to sacrifice their own livestock in trades across the aisle.

Compared to the debilitating effects of constant budget brinksmanship and continuing resolutions, the breaking of the “sequester” spending caps in favor of new bipartisan targets seems like an improvement. But let’s be clear about the long-term costs. This deal marks a return to trillion-dollar deficits and, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), will likely push the deficit to nearly 110 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), higher than the record levels reached following the Second World War.

Maya McGuiness, the head of the CRFB, rightly points out that “bipartisanship means making compromises and tough choices for the good of the county as a whole, not paying off each other with trillions of dollars in goodies and passing the buck, leaving the nation weaker.” Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen called the debt the greatest national security threat facing our country. It is vital for our country’s future that we get this right.

Compromise, however, is challenged by the self-sorting of many voters, the archaic nature of many of our election practices, and districts drawn to eliminate healthy competition. Dysfunction is fed by the polarization of public opinion and the fracturing of the American news media landscape, as news consumers retreat to echo chambers of their own choosing that thrive on narratives of extreme conflict and drama. It is cyclical, one feeding into the other, reinforcing and enhancing the noise.

These factors feed a deep disillusionment among voters in our institutions, driven by decades of failure to address the nation’s major challenges. A January 2018 Marist/NPR poll showed 71 percent of American adults have little or no faith in Congress, while a majority of Americans have little or no faith in the presidency. As a consequence, voters choose the candidate whose campaign rhetoric most closely matches their frustration with an ineffective system, or they simply entirely disengage from the process.

As former representatives, we understand well the challenges legislators face in reaching needed compromises, while trying to survive a highly polarized and hyper-partisan political environment. We saw firsthand what happens when the most passionate voters are inclined to punish compromise, especially when those that they punish fail to effectively communicate why that very compromise is necessary.

Real solutions to our fiscal dysfunction must therefore be based on a bipartisan approach. A good place to start is the realignment of the political incentive structure to better reward legislators for taking the tough votes. This alone would go a long way to fixing the problem, which is why our organization, the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress, is embarking on a program to reform this system.

In order to build momentum for good policy, government inefficiency could be a great place to start. There are far too many duplicative programs with and across departments — programs that have failed to achieve results, yet continue to receive funding. But here too requires leaders who will part with their own pet projects in order to serve the common good. Perhaps lawmakers could begin to rebuild the public trust by agreeing to end duplicative parochial programs, and reduce redundant and unnecessary regulations, from which they could proceed to tackle the tougher issues.

Breaking the cycle of voter mistrust and cynicism is a challenging task, and success requires reaching beyond the traditional political players. There is an important role for business leaders, for instance, who recognize that our political paralysis is not only bad for their bottom line, but also injurious to our nation. They can channel their influence and help promote the real long-term compromises necessary to put the country on more sustainable fiscal path.

Despite the collective failure to solve the country’s mounting challenges, America continues to showcase astounding ingenuity and progress. Let’s hope we can harness some of that same ingenuity to chart a winning course for our politics.

Mike Rogers is a Republican former member of Congress from Michigan, and the David M. Abshire Chair at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress (CSPC). Glenn Nye is a Democratic former member of Congress from Virginia, and president of CSPC.

Tags Bipartisanship Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget compromise Mike Rogers Polarization Political philosophy Political terminology Politics Terminology United States Congress

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