Political Dysfunction


As the clock ticks down toward Friday’s implementation of the billions of dollars of forced spending cuts known as sequestration, Washington continues to showcase the nation’s dysfunctional political system.  I’m now in Washington with a front row seat to the turmoil.

Yesterday, Speaker Boehner called on his colleagues in the Senate to «get off their ass» and find a solution to the sequestration crisis, but few now believe that will happen. In a nutshell, the deadlock on sequestration has boiled down to a philosophical difference between Democrats who are demanding a mixture of tax increases and budget cuts to solve the fiscal crisis, and Republicans who solidly refuse to raise taxes and instead emphasize deeper cuts. While this basic philosophical difference is nothing new, the political dynamics have shifted in recent years and promise to make compromise even more difficult.

Washington’s political focus has shifted during the Obama administration. The Tea Party phenomenon – although garnering less media attention than previously – continues to have an impact. Ultra-conservative party activists dominate the state primary processes and cause the more moderate GOP members of Congress to worry about being challenged in party primary elections by a more conservative candidate supported by grassroots activists. This shifts the focus away from Washington and gives GOP members an incentive not to find common ground.

At the same time, President Obama has also appealed to his grassroots supporters. Several times during his presidency, most poignantly during the health care debate during 2009-2010, Obama has reacted to Republican stonewalling by engaging in direct campaigning outside Washington to build popular support for his policies, which in turn was expected to pressure members of Congress to support his initiatives. In a unique move, the president has recently activated his presidential campaign machinery to reach out to grassroots Democrats. Drumming up support, however, requires a polarizing and exaggerated rhetoric that inhibits compromise.

In the present mudslinging debacle over sequestration, each of these two mechanisms can be seen: President Obama’s warnings over the consequences of sequestration that the GOP has called fear mongering, and adamant Republican refusal to budge on taxes and a dogged pursuit of fringe issues such as the conspiratorial obsession with the Benghazi attacks that cost the lives of four US diplomats.

To make matters worse, the accusations, divisive rhetoric and colorful language make for excellent television. The media have been doing their part to dramatize the political disagreements, and the talk shows are full of debates over procedural and tactical political issues. By devoting its attention to the sequestration process and which actors bear primary responsibility for the present situation, the nation avoids the necessary discussion that sequestration was designed to trigger in the first place.

By appealing to the grassroots of both parties, the President and the Congress smother any real possibility of finding common ground, and instead exacerbate the situation. This outside-the-beltway focus has led to a campaign style  dynamic that has degenerated into assigning blame rather than finding solutions. And the constant rounds of brinkmanship over the debt ceiling, the «fiscal cliff» and sequestration magnify this campaign dynamic and further hinder calm, rational problem solving. In Congressional hearings I attended yesterday, Members expressed a sense of dismay and helplessness over the situation.

Washington is at a standstill, with no apparent movement towards negotiation on the Hill. One possible option being discussed by the pundits is to grant the President the power to make the sequestration cuts, but that would represent an unprecedented abdication of the Congressional power of the purse. Another scenario entails the activation of sequestration measures and then a political resoluton being reached when the current continuing resolution expires in late March. But neither of these two options appears likely, and the current debt ceiling will also need renegotiating (again!) by this summer. The possibility for deadlock continuing into the foreseeable future appears highly likely.

Even more disconcerting is the spread of political discord into an area that has traditionally remained above partisan bickering: foreign and defense policy, as Svein noted in a recent blog entry. The delays in confirming Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense (who was finally confirmed yesterday with an unprecedented 40 opposing votes) and John Brennan as CIA chief are highly unusual and highly partisan acts that weaken the nominees at the expense of scoring political points. The sequestration also mandates deep cuts to the Department of Defense which, in addition to the temporary budget agreements (known as continuing resolutions) that have become standard practice over the past three years, will significantly impact the ability of the US military to maintain readiness.

The willingness to wage such political battles in an arena normally characterized by bipartisan consensus simply illustrates the depth of the political crisis in Washington. For US defense policy, this political knife-fighting has already resulted in long-term effects and higher force modernization and maintenance costs. An eventual sequestration process will cause even greater disruptions. The underlying imbalance between ambitious strategic requirements and inadequate funding levels will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.


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