Governance in America 2000: An Overview

December 1, 2000

American politics, at least as it is practiced in Washington, is not a pretty sight these days. In contrast to the vibrancy of the U.S. economy and society, the political arena abounds in personal animosity, bitter partisanship, pettiness, negativity, and transparent disingenuousness. Two examples from the last months of the first session of the 106th Congress stand out.

Against the express wish of 62 senators, who urged a delay in the face of its certain defeat, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott proceeded with a vote on ratifying the nuclear test ban treaty. The outcry around the world over the Senate?s repudiation of a major international agreement seemed a small price to pay for humiliating President Clinton. Of course, tactical blunders by the president and his Democratic allies in the Senate were largely to blame for the timing of this ignominious defeat. And legitimate disagreement over the likely consequences of the treaty made building a supermajority coalition for its ratification a decidedly uphill struggle. But the unwillingness of the majority party and its leader to accede to the request of the president to defer action was unprecedented.

The debate over the fiscal year 2000 appropriations bills was no more ennobling or inspiring of confidence in the seriousness and judgment of our elected representatives. Unrealistically tight discretionary spending caps in the 1997 balanced budget legislation posed serious obstacles for the president and Congress in reaching agreement on the new budget. One might have thought that the very robust economic performance that helped turn budget deficits into surpluses would create some room for constructive maneuvering?modest upward adjustments in spending levels in the near term combined with longer-term steps to bolster the fiscal integrity of Social Security. But that would be too much to expect. Instead, we have been subjected to state-of-the-art budget gimmicks and an altogether phony partisan debate over who is protecting the Social Security surplus.

The poisonous atmosphere in Washington that developed from President Clinton?s personal misbehavior and public dissembling, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr?s aggressive investigation, and the House Republicans? decision to impeach the president over the opposition of a strong, stable majority of citizens, has become even more noxious in the ensuing months. Politicians make little effort to hide their contempt for one another. Members of the majority party in Congress routinely assail the president?s character and trustworthiness. The president?s national security adviser issues a blanket indictment of the Republican party for its supposed neoisolationism. And the talk news shows fan the partisan fires, trivializing whatever serious substantive differences exist and lending prominence to those talking the loudest and taking the most outrageous positions.

But the roots of this distemper among political elites are much more variegated. Most importantly, the parties are more evenly balanced and ideologically polarized than at any time in contemporary history. After decades of minority status, Republicans are pleased to be in the majority, but their margins are razor thin and their leadership weak. While holding the White House for seven years, the Democrats have seen their position erode at every other level of elective office. Changes in the coalitional bases of the parties in the electorate have sharply reduced the ranks of centrists in Congress and shifted the median position in each party toward its ideological pole. And both parties have suffered stinging defeats on major policy initiatives (national health care reform for the Democrats, cutting government and reducing taxes for the Republicans), which has spawned a very cautious approach to policymaking and put a premium on defensive tactics and symbolic position taking.

The wide-open, high-stakes 2000 elections reinforce these tendencies. It is no exaggeration to say that both major party presidential nominations, the general election for president, and partisan control of the House, the Senate, and many state legislatures are up for grabs. Nor is it fanciful to conclude that the outcome of those elections will leave an imprint on party gains and losses from legislative redistricting after the 2000 census; the relative strength of parties over the next decade or two; the ideological balance on federal appellate and district courts; and policy directions on such issues as the disposition of the budget surpluses, the restructuring of social insurance, the steps taken toward universal health insurance, the federal role in public education, and U.S. international economic and security policy.

Barren Legislative Harvest

No wonder the legislative harvest from this Congress has been so barren and the parties have disagreed on so much so disagreeably. But is this a condition likely to persist beyond the 2000 election? Is the popular critique of American politics and governance, routinely associated with low levels of public trust and declining turnout rates, accurate? Do fundamental shortcomings in our politics and governance merit serious debate during the 2000 campaign?on a level with challenges of an aging society and brightening the life prospects of Americans left behind by the current economic boom? This special issue of the Brookings Review is devoted to providing some answers to these questions.

E. J. Dionne, Jr., sets the stage for this symposium on the process of politics and governance by reminding us of the manifest importance of the ideas that animate public debate and partisan competition. In his book Why Americans Hate Politics, published at the beginning of the decade, Dionne argued that the culture wars and ideological battles engaging political activists too often posed false choices and ignored more pressing concerns of ordinary citizens. Candidate Bill Clinton made that argument a central feature of his 1992 presidential campaign. Here, in a reprise of that volume at decade?s end, Dionne finds that the politics of false choices has largely been displaced with a public debate about how to deal with real problems affecting the lives of the citizenry. Americans still hate politics, but now for different reasons, ones possibly more amenable to change, especially if the more enlightened and vigorous debate about our future takes hold.

Bill Clinton not only helped alter the contours of political debate in America, he also propelled the presidency further into the world of the permanent campaign. Charles O. Jones argues that the campaigning style of governing embraced by Clinton reflected his own personal skills and instincts but was also responsive to powerful changes in communication and information technology. Future presidents will almost certainly adopt campaigning-to-govern practices popularized by Clinton; the real question is with what effects on governance. Will the permanent campaign be educational for the president and others? Will it be substantive in support of proposals or merely negative? Will it be purposeful for the presidency or merely personal?

In the next essay Sarah Binder systematically unpacks the concept routinely used to characterize legislative inaction in Washington: gridlock. She notes that in many ways gridlock is endemic to our national politics, the natural consequence of separated institutions sharing and competing for power. And yet the performance of Congress varies tremendously over time, ranging from the bountiful harvest of Lyndon Johnson?s Great Society Congress to the scant domestic yield of George Bush?s last year in the White House. Defining gridlock as the share of salient issues on the nation?s agenda left in limbo at the close of each Congress, Binder begins by assessing the effect of the “suspects” usually blamed for gridlock?divided party control of Congress and the White House, the approach of presidential elections, tough fiscal times. But she finds that other characteristics of Congress?partisan polarization, ideological differences between the House and Senate, and Senate rules that allow the minority to stymie the will of the majority?are in fact more powerful predictors of gridlock. Electing more centrists to Congress and loosening the grip of individual senators and intense minorities on Senate business, she says, would help.

Rebuild the Federal Service

Paul Light trains his sight on the coming government war for talent. While the culture of work in America has changed dramatically, the federal civil service has mostly stood still. Graduates of top schools of public policy and administration are shunning what they see as dead-end government jobs where seniority, not performance, matters?and taking public service jobs in private and nonprofit agencies. With the federal government unable to attract or hold young people interested in public service, Light argues, Congress and the president must start building a civil service relevant to a new generation of talent. If not, the coming retirement of baby boomers who took government jobs in the 1960s and 1970s will pose a human capital crisis that could weaken government performance from top to bottom and sink public confidence in government to new lows.

Many political analysts see a powerful trend in recent years toward decentralization in America?s federal system, with power devolving from Washington to states and localities. The trend is often viewed as part of a larger phenomenon forecast some years ago by Daniel Bell, in which important decisions migrate from national governments up to global authorities and down to regional and local governments. While Martha Derthick would likely not contest the general proposition, she sees a more complex federalism picture in the United States. The federal system, she argues, is constantly changing, often in contrary directions at once?both centralizing and decentralizing. And so it is today. To illustrate her point, Derthick cites changes in constitutional interpretation by the Supreme Court, in electoral politics, and in the design and administration of public programs dealing with welfare, crime, and education.

News and Politics

No one doubts the importance of how Americans get their news about politics and government for their attitudes toward and participation in the political system. Indeed, many critics lay much of the blame for public disaffection and disengagement from public affairs on practices of the mass media. One irrefutable feature of those practices, charted by Stephen Hess in his essay, is the decline in media coverage of all levels of government?national, state, and local?over the past two decades. Hess acknowledges the rich menu of offerings by the media, the more engaging forms of news presentation, and the bright and talented individuals who fill the ranks of journalism. But for most Americans, who rely on local and network television for information on public affairs, their news pays little attention to municipal government beyond crime and fires, ignores almost entirely state government, and increasingly finds the margins of national government more interesting than the core.

One of the most troublesome developments in American politics is the increasing tendency of political adversaries to use the legal system to embarrass or morally annihilate their opponents. Often referred to as the “criminalization of politics,” it encompasses everything from unsubstantiated ethics charges to questionable demands for the appointment of independent counsel to the use of the discovery process to troll for embarrassing revelations about one?s political opponents. Michael Davidson and Elaine Stone tackle this issue by asking whether the growing number of cases involving charges of misconduct by public officials, now routinely routed through the criminal justice system, could be more sensibly handled otherwise. They discuss the circumstances under which action by the president, investigation by Congress, or inquiry by federal prosecutors is most appropriate. The demise of the Independent Counsel Act makes possible the exercise of more judgment on how best to proceed, informed by law and experience, by proportionality, by competing demands for time and resources, and by common sense.

The conversion of budget deficits into surpluses, one of the Clinton administration?s prize trophies, represents an extraordinary achievement for a supposedly broken and ineffectual political system. Many analysts conclude the explanation is simple: “It?s the economy, stupid.” But is it? Allen Schick argues that budget policy had as much to do with liquidating the deficit as the strong economy. He compares the economic booms of the 1980s and 1990s and finds that the economy cannot adequately account for today?s surplus. The key? The tax increases (almost entirely on upper-income households) enacted in 1990 and 1993 largely reversed tax cuts in the previous decade and added almost $200 billion in annual revenue to federal coffers. Schick concludes that by taxing the winners during the 1990s, redistributing income and boosting its revenues, the government produced sound social policy and responsible fiscal policy. And he gives some of the credit to divided government?for blocking Republican ambitions for large tax cuts and deterring Democrats from big increases in social spending.

If fiscal policy has paid handsome dividends in recent years, foreign policy has been much less rewarding. While our national security is not at immediate risk, U.S. foreign policymaking in the wake of the Cold War has become extremely contentious. James Lindsay observes that the general public, relieved of a foreign threat, has retreated into apathy (though not isolationism), while Washington policymakers, unable to agree on a central organizing principle to take the place of containment, disagree about almost everything. In the current atmosphere of policy dissensus, the key to avoiding foreign policy gridlock and incoherence is political leadership. Unable to count on the public and Congress to rally to his side when foreign policy is in question, the president must devote constant effort to shaping and mobilizing public opinion and building political support on Capitol Hill.

The concluding essay in this issue, mine and Norman Ornstein?s, develops further the idea of the permanent campaign and explores ways in which the 2000 campaign might be used to improve conditions for governing in the new millennium. Most of the features of contemporary politics that Americans find distasteful are associated with nonstop, year-round campaigning for election and for policy. The ubiquitous political consultants, pollsters, fundraisers, public relations specialists, talk news entertainers, and pundits create an impression that politics and governance are bereft of principles and ideas and hopelessly rigged by special interests and gamed by politicians consumed by their own reelection. Money is seen to fuel this permanent campaign, in ways that distort how politicians spend their time and who gains advantage in national policymaking.

Ongoing efforts to repair gaping holes in the fabric of campaign finance regulation, improve the quality of deliberation in campaigns, increase and improve media coverage of public affairs, and lessen the harmful effects of excessive partisanship may well pay off modestly in the years ahead. But steps can be taken to raise questions about governance during the 2000 campaign?about transition planning, agenda setting, dealing with Congress, coping with the permanent campaign, building domestic support for foreign policy, and political reform?that offer the possibility of more immediate improvements in the American way of politics.

Moving away from what Dionne calls the politics of false choices and initiating a serious conversation before the election about how we govern ourselves could help our political system catch up with the impressive gains made in the rest of American life.