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The Real Crisis Behind the Sequester: Our Government

March 1, 2013  • Mickey Edwards

Mickey Edwards is vice president and director of the Aspen Institute-Rodel Fellowship in Public Leadership, former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma, and author of the book The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans.

Fiscal cliffs, sequesters, layoffs and shutdowns. Angst over whether to authorize the spending necessary to pay for debts that have already been incurred. Omnibus spending bills that fund the federal government on autopilot without serious congressional consideration of where spending should be increased and where it should be reduced. Crisis has become the norm in an increasingly dysfunctional national legislature in which party lines harden, compromise becomes ever more elusive, and the economy teeters constantly on a wire stretched over an cover

It is obvious that the real crisis is not economic but governmental. Republicans and Democrats in Congress find it more and more difficult to craft bipartisan agreements, the President and Congress engage daily in hyperbolic blame games, and one wishes desperately for some adult leadership from both the White House and Capitol Hill. How did it come to this point?

The latest iteration of this ongoing partisan warfare began with the President proposing a “sequester” (withholding funds if no spending agreement had been achieved by a predetermined deadline) and, as with the “fiscal cliff,” optimists believing that somehow having a deadline would force agreements that would not otherwise be possible. Both the President and members of Congress knew, of course, that despite the warnings, predictions, and fusillades of blame, Congress can simply change the deadline if it wishes (as was the case with the earlier fiscal cliff “moment of truth,” a moment that was simply delayed). But implicit in the “cliff” and the “sequester” schemes was a realization that the Congress and the Executive have become so partisan that agreements are simply no longer possible in the normal course of events.

There are historical factors that come into play. Many who served in earlier Congresses, as I did, place part of the blame on the creation of the House and Senate Budget Committees, which delay action on spending bills and draw highly partisan lines in the sand at the beginning of each Congress. Others point to the fact that neither political party has the same kind of overwhelming dominance that Democrats enjoyed for four decades, thus pitting nearly equal forces against each other in every major legislative battle. And still others point to the lack of diversity within each political party – moderate to liberal Republicans are no longer to be found within the Capitol and conservative Democrats, too, are a disappearing breed. There are few members of Congress who are available to swing toward whichever proposal seems best on its merits any more.

But while all of those elements have contributed to the creation of a government in which dysfunction is expected and accepted, the bigger culprits are: (a) the political system of closed party primaries, laws that keep primary losers off the general election ballot, and party-controlled redistricting; (b) a governing system in which political parties control the inner workings of Congress, including selection of committee members and control over the debate and amendment process; and (c) a campaign finance system that gives special interests disproportionate influence over election outcomes. The problems that produce sequesters, fiscal cliffs, and omnibus (and indiscriminate) spending bills are systemic. They are the natural and inevitable result of the systems by which we choose our elected officials and the systems in which they govern. The single most important thing to remember about the “sequester” issue is that it’s not about a sequester at all. It’s about a political system in which things like fiscal cliffs and sequester battles and fights over debt ceiling increases are not inexplicable, but natural outcomes. Whatever happens now, we can know for certain that we’ll be right back here again before long. Unless we make fundamental changes in our political system, that’s just the way it’s going to be.

Watch Mickey discuss, The Parties Versus the People, at a recent fireside chat in Aspen, CO.