Is There a Fix for Washington’s Paralysis?

In a recent interview, Jonathan Rauch discusses whether Washington is too tied down by interest groups, thereby preventing lawmakers from being able to address the country’s biggest problems on NPR.

NPR: Both Time and The Economist devoted recent covers to stories depicting Washington as being pretty well broken. Are things really that bad?

Jonathan Rauch: I don’t think brokenness is brand new, but I do think Washington is more broken than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

The political parties used to be much closer to the center, but both have sorted out by ideology. There’s simply no overlap in the middle. The result of that is disputes become more polarized and ideological.

That’s a big change. It’s the single most important trend in American politics in the last 30 years.

NPR: Your book was about how interest groups work to defend their subsidies and favored programs, sometimes at the expense of the greater good. How is that playing out now?

JR: Think about health care. President Obama and the Democrats had to try to pay for it with a mix of taxes and projected cuts to other health programs. They were not allowed to touch farm programs or subsidies to students or any other program.

We’re saying that every other incumbent program in the federal government is more important than the president’s and Congress’ most important priority. That creates a very difficult governing environment.

NPR: Do you think the parties have become more like interest groups in their seeming inability or unwillingness to bend?

JR: There’s something to that. Interest groups tend to be very focused on getting what they want — or, more importantly, blocking what they don’t want.

As the parties have become more polarized and compact ideologically, they do look less like the grand coalitions of yore and more like the National Rifle Association or whatever group.

Both of these parties are less of the big tent, social organizing force that they once were, and more about getting their way and blocking the other guy.

NPR: Your book begins and ends with the story of a congressman who ends up quitting in disgust. A lot of his arguments sounded like the complaints that Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) raised last month in announcing his retirement. But Bayh received a lot of criticism for not staying to make things better.

JR: The environment for a U.S. senator is very unpleasant right now. There are so many ferocious, well-organized lobbies that will target you with machine guns — so many single or limited interest groups that will challenge you now with a primary if you attempt to cross them.

Evan Bayh strikes me as a pretty normal guy. Maybe he’s a wimp, but I’d like to have wimps in the Senate and the House. Those are otherwise known as ordinary people who don’t want to devote their lives to partisan warfare.

NPR: In your book, you quote former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY) as saying that “raw fear” in Congress of upsetting interest groups keeps the status quo “frozen in place.” That was in 1985. How do you think he’ll find things now, as co-chair of President Obama’s new federal deficit commission?

JR: Ask him. But this is a point that people often miss. They’re all frustrated. They’re not sitting around, coming to work thinking, “How can I harm people and gridlock the system?” The problem is institutional changes and incentives that make it difficult to be a uniter and not a divider.

NPR: So what’s the solution?

JR: The big underlying trends are not easily reversible. The political system has done a very good job of eliminating centrist candidates.

With the parties this far apart ideologically, the only way you can get sustainable bipartisanship is to have divided government, so that both parties have their fingerprints on government.

We may be about to fix the unified government problem. We’ve had less than seven years of it since 1980. And things will look better, because then Republicans would have to start governing, and Democrats would have to move to the center.