Clearing the Rubble: American Politics Makes a New Beginning

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

March 1, 2000

Jonathan Rauch is surely right about three things. Americans are “realistic idealists.” Current attitudes toward government do promise a “more productive and less pathological relationship between Washington and its public.” And, yes, large-scale change in the federal government is difficult.

But Rauch’s underlying tone of pessimism suggests a view of an immobile Washington that is neither justified by history (recent and not-so-recent) nor in keeping with the current circumstances in politics. Washington has seen more change than Rauch suggests, and more change is in the offing.

Rauch, a brilliant and intellectually fearless dissector of our political system, is always on strong ground when he argues that many of the programs most blatantly skewed to narrow interests—ethanol and sugar subsidies, the several billions for questionable transportation projects, regional programs that have influential congressional sponsors—are difficult to uproot and repeal. In these cases, it’s largely true, as he says, that “reformers are almost infinitely less committed to eliminating or reforming any one government program than that program’s clients are to maintaining it.”

But however bothersome they might be to those who oppose them, these programs are a relatively small part of the federal apparatus. Consider the big changes that have taken place over the past two decades in the big parts of government: overall taxation levels, defense, and the programs for the elderly.

For better or worse—on balance, I think for better—the Washington system has been powerfully flexible on taxes. Ronald Reagan arrived in 1980 promising big tax cuts, and he delivered them. Almost immediately, Congress decided that it had cut taxes too much and enacted some tax increase and loophole-closing measures. In 1986, Congress passed the historic tax reform that Rauch agrees was a very big change in the way taxes are levied. In 1990, despite his “read my lips” pledge of “no new taxes,” George Bush agreed to a substantial tax increase. In 1993, Congress enacted President Clinton’s tax program, which was broadly redistributive. It raised the top tax rate to more than 39 percent and provided substantial relief and subsidy (through large increases in the earned income tax credit) to lower-income Americans. And, by the way, the Bush and Clinton tax increases helped eliminate the deficit.

However you feel about different parts of this story, it is not a story of stasis or of a federal government incapable of responding to new circumstances or to new marching orders from the electorate. Both the Reagan and Clinton programs were sweeping in their way, and both were enacted at a moment of economic crisis (perceived or real) that gave their sponsors political openings that do not exist in more placid times.

Similarly, the federal government has responded to changes in perceived threats to our nation’s interests by sharply altering military spending. Reagan succeeded in enacting huge increases in the military budget because the nation felt weak and insecure in the face of what many saw as Soviet expansionism (in Afghanistan especially) and the Iranian hostage crisis. One can argue that the military spending increases didn’t have to be as large as they were. That they happened is evidence of a system responding to both new directives from the top and to a reading of public opinion that, if Reagan’s reelection is any indicator, was accurate enough.

Since the Cold War ended, military outlays have been slashed in real terms. For doves, the cuts have not gone far enough. For hawks, they have been debilitating to the military, and political pressure is now rising to increase the military budget again. The merits of the case can be argued in forthcoming issues of this magazine. What cannot be argued is that change—very substantial change—happened.

Social Security and Medicare have been altered a lot over the past two decades, and more change will certainly come. In 1983, at the urging of the Social Security Commission, Congress enacted both big tax increases and substantial benefit cuts (in the form of gradual increases in the retirement age). Congress has steadily made large spending cuts in Medicare that are now calling forth demands that reimbursements to hospitals be increased. In keeping with Rauch’s arguments, it’s true that many members of Congress who say they want to cut Medicare spending also complain when their local hospitals find themselves short of cash. But is that so surprising? Members of Congress have both philosophical commitments and local responsibilities. All democratic systems that work require the people’s representatives to find a balance between the two.

It’s true that advocates of privatizing Social Security and turning Medicare into a voucher program have found themselves frustrated. From one point of view, this might seem to be a failure. From another point of view, it reflects the popularity of these two large programs and legitimate, widespread fears that radical changes in the way they operate might hurt recipients, especially the most vulnerable recipients. Advocates of privatization and vouchers (who, it’s worth noting, are more vocal now than they ever have been) may not like the way things have gone so far. But they haven’t failed because of some flaw in “the system.” They’ve failed because they haven’t assembled a working political majority.

Rauch does have a point on health care reform overall. It is excruciatingly difficult to change our health care system. The power of the particular interests Rauch is concerned about (documented by David Broder and Haynes Johnson in their book, The System) surely has a lot to do with this. But so does public opinion. Americans are sufficiently mistrustful of the way the health system works that they worry that any changes will only make it worse. They thus hold reformers to a very high—perhaps impossible—standard. This is a genuine problem, but it’s not purely a problem of “client groups and their coalitions of interest.” The public as a whole, and not just special interest groups, is wary of what change might mean.

Rauch is right that Big Reform is hard. It took decades of agitation to enact Social Security and the Wages and Hours law, Civil Rights and Medicare, airline and transportation deregulation, and changes in welfare. But all those reforms happened, often incrementally. Two relatively modest civil rights bills preceded the big one in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Social Security law originally covered a much smaller proportion of the population than it does today. Medicare was voted down before it was voted up. The political system of 2000 is just as resistant to such big changes as the political system has been throughout our history. But is it now more resistant than it ever was?

Our system does have new problems—especially the soaring cost of political campaigns and the resulting need for politicians to raise extraordinary sums of cash from lobbyists and other parties representing narrow client groups. It’s also true that a president from one party and a closely divided Congress controlled by the other will have trouble agreeing to any major reforms in this election year.

But the promise Rauch rightly sees of a “less pathological” relationship between voters and Washington is justified for the long haul. That new promise arises not because voters are lowering their expectations, but because they rejected a utopian antigovernment politics that pretended we could slash government and live happily ever after. The rubble left over from the failure of this assault on government is now being cleared away. As a result, we can argue again about what government should do and how it can do what it does better. That’s progress.