Julian Zelizer: Everyone bemoans partisan gridlock, but the problems go deeper
He says both parties want to preserve intrusive security system and huge budget
Neither party has given priority to reducing poverty or weakening lobbyists, he says
Zelizer: There are glimmers of hope that poverty will be an issue for Washington this year
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “Governing America.”
The year ended with the familiar laments about partisan gridlock in Washington, and 2014 began with more of the same. The list of failures that can be attributed to the parties constantly bickering is long. Congress has been unable to address the big problems of the day, such as immigration or climate change, and party polarization has caused ongoing distress in economic markets.
But with all of our discussions of difference and discord, too often we miss some areas where both parties are actually in unspoken agreement. There is a consensus view that encapsulates what’s really wrong in Washington.
There are three points of agreement that have had particularly ill effects on the nation:
The national security state
Neither party is interested in seriously reforming our national security state. This is an old problem. In 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower warned during his farewell address that the “military-industrial complex” that was created during the Cold War threatened the nation’s budget, its military strategy and its civil liberties.
Over half a century later, the problem continues. For all the fights that have taken place on Capitol Hill, it is remarkable how the national security system created in the wake of 9/11 has proven so resilient.
After the National Security Agency surveillance revelations of 2013, there has certainly been more momentum for restricting how much information the federal government can collect in pursuit of terrorists. But thus far the push has been limited.
The leaders of both parties have been extremely hesitant to make this a priority issue, with most of them fearing the blame that would result if another attack takes place following any reforms. Even President Barack Obama – who once championed these kinds of limitations and whose reputation among his supporters has been severely damaged by his change of heart on these issues – responded to the report of a presidential commission with words of caution about how far he take reform.
The danger of mass surveillance is that it severely infringes on civil liberties and erodes the kinds of freedoms our war against terrorism aimed to protect. When the surveillance of foreign leaders was revealed by Edward Snowden’s disclosures, it had an extremely damaging impact on U.S. diplomatic relations with key allies and undermined support for the U.S. overseas.
Neither have we seen much momentum for serious scrutiny of the massive defense budget. Budget cuts from the sequestration measure posed a threat to military contracts, many of which are outdated and were designed to please congressional districts rather than making rational defense policy. But even that has receded. The budget deal orchestrated last month by Democrat Sen. Patty Murray and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan provided substantial relief from the cuts to defense spending.
In 2012, the Center for a New American Society pointed to a number of ways in which Congress could spend money much more efficiently. For example, the group pointed out how the government has continued to spend on the MV-22 tilt motor aircraft despite ongoing technological failures. The government has also unnecessarily maintained its enormous nuclear stockpile, costing tens of billions of dollars, decades after the Cold War ended.
Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson and the 88th Congress launched an ambitious War on Poverty that aimed to provide tools for the poor to become self-sufficient. For over a decade, the program – which Johnson broadly defined to include all of his programs to help the poor – had a powerful effect. The poverty rate fell from 19% in 1964 to 11.2% in 1974. New government services, such as Head Start and Medicaid, have remained integral to those without economic means.
But since the 1970s, political concern about poverty has vastly diminished.
Even though politicians occasionally talk about inequality – with some Democrats calling for more muscular programs to address these communities and Republicans such as Ryan calling for the use of tax incentives to help the poor – substantive poverty policy has been abominable. New government support for the poor is nonexistent while ongoing programs don’t receive adequate funding. Key programs such as food stamps have been under direct attack.
The nation has allowed entire communities in inner city and rural America to disintegrate. There are parts of the country where jobs are far too scarce, where crime and drug use is rampant and where kids grow up in dilapidated housing and without any strong education.
One recent study found that poverty in the suburbs increased by 64% from 2000 to 2011, with 16.4 million people living in poverty in the suburbs in 2012, more than the 13.4 million poor in America’s cities.
In Rolling Stone, reporter Matt Taibbi provided a gripping portrait of Camden, New Jersey, revealing a community that was once a thriving industrial town now having a ruined economy and the nation’s highest crime rate. Almost 42% of the city’s residents are living in poverty.
There are obvious political reasons for the silence on this crisis.
A large number of Democrats have been so focused on winning middle class suburban votes and the elusive independent center that they have dropped these kinds of issues from their discussion. Republicans have pursued economic policies that tend to exacerbate inequality and are reluctant to embrace the use of government to help anyone, including the disadvantaged.
The most active interest in anti-poverty policies has come at the state and local level. In New York, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who as an independent wasn’t beholden to either major party, launched one of the most ambitious programs, which earned the praise of liberal scholars such as Michael Katz. “Criticism of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg,” Katz wrote in The New York Times, “for neglecting the poor ignored his bold and unprecedented antipoverty measures.”
Bloomberg launched a number of programs, including cash rewards for families in poverty that were able to abide by certain health and educational guidelines.
The time has come for the federal government to do much more. Democrats have turned their attention to issues such as the minimum wage increase, but, as we saw in the 1960s, a real attack on poverty will require a more ambitious and holistic approach to help transform the basic conditions under which those in poverty live. It will need to include aggressive programs to bring investment into depressed areas and provide job training, child care and better educational services.
The power of lobbyists
Everyone who follows politics knows the power that lobbyists wield in Washington. For all the celebration that surrounds the start of every new administration and Congress, a large number of the key players in Washington remain the same regardless of which parties controls the town. Lobbyists rule the roost.
The lobbying community of Washington has vastly expanded since the 1970s with thousands of organizations and interest having set up shop in the capital. In 1971, there were 175 registered lobbyists; by 1982, the number reached 2,500, according to political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. By 2012, there were more than 12,000 lobbyists in Washington by 2012 with the industry raking in more than $3 billion a year.
Lobbyists work hard to protect the programs that matter to their clients. They marshal an enormous amount of resources, ranging from campaign contributions to advertisements, to make sure that politicians don’t touch their interests.
Everyone knows this is a problem. The ways in which lobbyists and money pervert the democratic process is obvious. It also fuels the kind of gridlock that American citizens decry. Only certain people gain a seat at the table. And politicians in both parties like to rail against Washington and the evil ways of K Street, where most of the lobbies are located. Many legislators take on lucrative jobs in the lobbying industry (advising rather than directly lobbying to get around the rules) to cash in on their years of service. Almost 50% of retiring senators take this path.
But government reform has been a neglected issue. Democratic and Republican incumbents, who have learned to benefit from the existing system, don’t have much of an incentive to change the status quo, even after Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision helped open the floodgates for more money in campaigns and the ongoing innovations in political advertising that are allowing interest groups new levels of influence in campaigns.
In these cases, what we really need is more partisanship – more debates between Democrats and Republicans about how to tackle these problems and more competition to offer solutions that will make things better.
There is a glimmer of hope about poverty. Democrats, including President Obama, are stressing issues of economic inequality at the start of 2014, focusing attention on the minimum wage, extending unemployment insurance and pushing for the expansion of Medicaid in Republican states that have stood firm against this aspect of the Affordable Care Act.
Even some Republicans, including Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, are talking about new efforts to fight poverty. Time will tell how serious these initiatives are and whether they can break through the bipartisan consensus that has stifled action for years.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.