One of my former political science professors told my class that the higher one climbs in political leadership–or any management position, for that matter–the more time one spends praising others and receiving blame. The accuracy of that statement is abundantly clear for members of Congress, who might feel a great relief if their jobs were merely thankless during the last few years of cyclical fiscal crises that have driven their approval ratings to historic lows.
Whether or not people know what “Sequestration” is by now, chances are that they are angry about it and so frustrated by Congress’s inability to resolve the disputes it has created for itself that they are giving up on reasonable solutions and grasping instead for poetic justice. A common suggestion has been to dock Congress members’ pay until they come to a compromise. It’s unlikely this would achieve much, but the Constitution’s 27th Amendment forbids Congress from tampering with its own pay anyway. (That hasn’t stopped the idea’s populist appeal, though, so John Barrow, a Democrat from Georgia, went so far as to propose a change to the amendment so that it only restricts Congress from voting itself pay increases, but not decreases.) Meanwhile, Congressional offices could still receive budget cuts, but all that does is hit the underpaid staffers, not to mention the constituents they serve. That won’t really satisfy anyone.
These days Representatives are routinely shamed for acting like petulant children, but that comparison is misleading. For ‘accountability’ to actually mean something, voters have to look beyond the politicians’ public personae and understand the political forces that push them into behaving the way they do.
For decades the balance of power in Washington has been shifting in favor of special interest groups who use member fees to pump money into influencing elections. That’s not new, but what is interesting lately is that some of these groups no longer just spend their money backing one party’s candidates over the other’s, but instead are threatening to back primary challengers to their own party’s sitting members in retaliation for any behavior perceived to be too moderate.
During budget negotiations a few months ago some Democrats, hoping to end a bitter stalemate, offered a relatively minor concession to the Republicans, who have sought to cut unnecessary spending on Social Security and Medicare by recalculating annual inflation so that the benefits seniors receive would more accurately reflect increases to their cost of living. Senior advocacy groups leaped into action and mobilized to put intense pressure on the Democrats not to “throw seniors under the bus.” One group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) openly threatened to back primary challengers to any incumbent Democrats who backed the offer. Today the plan is still extremely controversial, and prominent Democrats, including Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen, strongly oppose it, limiting their bargaining options.
The strategy has popped up even more frequently on the other side of the aisle. The conservative Club for Growth has threatened primary challenges against any Republican incumbents they believe to be compromising on pure conservative principles. The group even launched a website called “Primary My Congressman!” featuring nine Representatives it pegs as “Republicans in name only,” or R.I.N.O.’s.
“…In districts that are heavily Republican,” the website explains, “there are literally dozens of missed opportunities to elect real fiscal conservatives to Congress — not more ‘moderates’ who will compromise with Democrats to just increase spending and grow government a little bit slower than usual.”
If you’re looking for one of the big sources of partisan gridlock in D.C., look no further. These special interest groups are dedicating their time and money to turning “moderate” into a dirty word and ensuring that compromise is next to impossible.
Like I said, this strategy by such groups is not new, and has been strongly linked to greater partisanship since the 90s. It’d be an oversight, however, not to see some of the Tea Party’s influence in this trend. Whether the Republican establishment didn’t know what they were getting themselves into when they worked to co-opt to the Tea Party movement, or just didn’t care, the resulting fissure in their party has become increasingly public. And for now, the bulk of popular enthusiasm seems to be favoring the insurgent, uncompromising far-right over the more moderate establishment.
To be clear, the same divisive forces are at work in the Democratic party, and they could become just as problematic in the future. The difference for now is that, by the will of the voters, the Republicans are the minority party, but are not acting like one. The Tea Party and groups like the Club For Growth are not content to admit defeat and work towards rebuilding their base of support for the future. Their solution to losing ground is to go to even further ideological extremes, and they sell their vision to diehard supporters like it’s never been tried before. They are the very roadblock to resolution that they accuse other members of Congress of being.
There aren’t any easy solutions to this problem. Some political scientists argue that the proliferation of interest groups that clog the gears of Congress and uphold an increasingly untenable fiscal structure that benefits a few at the expense of the many is the inevitable result of a flaw in our form of governance. That’s biting off a lot more than I can chew here, but getting a little closer to understanding why our elected officials are stuck in the mud on Sequestration and other fiscal matters is a useful endeavor. Sure, they’ll still get the blame either way, as befits their position, but there’s more than enough to go around to the lesser known players standing in the way of progress.
In 1550 a diplomat and author by the name of Leo Africanus published a multi-volume description of Africa, drawn from his experiences as a young man touring the region of Northwest Africa known as the Maghreb. His travels took him to a thriving city where pure gold nuggets were used in place of currency, and the king was said to possess a gold ingot that weighed nearly half a ton. It was a powerful, but peaceful kingdom where education was greatly valued, leading to the establishment of ancient universities and a significant accumulation of handwritten books purchased from merchants passing through the city on camels. The city came to be known as Timbuktu, and so captured the imagination of European readers that over time it gained an aura of mystery and even legend.
Today many people have either never heard of Timbuktu, or believe that it is an imaginary place, like El Dorado. Dictionaries even define it as a metaphor for a “remote or extremely distant place.” Perhaps this helps to explain some of the difficulties being felt today by the modern city’s very real residents, as well as those in the rest of the country in which it is located.
Timbuktu sits near the geographical center of Mali, a nation nearly twice the size of Texas that most people would struggle to locate on a map. While not all that remote in modern times (it’s just south of the more familiar North African countries like Morocco and Algeria and has several international airports), Mali has rarely drawn much attention from the modern international community because it is sparsely populated, has few natural resources of interest, and as a consequence is desperately poor. Up until last spring, it was noteworthy mainly for being one of a very few African nations with a legitimately elected democratic government. But its 20-year democratic establishment ended suddenly in March after a military coup overthrew the government only one month before a scheduled presidential election.
Since the coup, control of the country has become divided between the moderate, more economically developed government in the southern capitol of Bamako, and separatist Islamic tribes and other ethnic groups of the less populated northern section, which projects deep into the Sahara and includes Timbuktu, among other villages. The rebels began by demanding political autonomy, but extreme Islamic factions have become increasingly aggressive in asserting their harsh version of sharia law, from amputating the hands of thieves to stoning unwed couples for having children. Despite its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the rebels have sought to demolish ancient shrines in Timbuktu and sent its Christian residents fleeing for their lives.
Mali’s crisis deepened for months but evoked little reaction from the global community until January when it was finally realized that the country had become a magnet for the growing international terrorist organization known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Like Afghanistan, Mali met the conditions for a promising safe haven for terrorists: weak border control, an impoverished population to provide recruits, and an influx of readily available weapons, smuggled out of Libya after the fall of the Qaddafi regime. When AQIM and other fundamentalist groups arrived they allied themselves with the separatist rebels who had first seized control of the north, but they soon turned against them and seized the cities for themselves, exacerbating an already chaotic situation.
After the rebels recently made advances against cities in the southern part of the country, Bamako urgently requested intervention from the international community. France, which administered Mali as a colony until 1960 and has economic interests in the region, finally stepped in with air strikes and (at the moment) a modest number of boots on the ground to push back against rebel-held territory. Understandably, there are concerns about this decision dragging France into its own version of the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan, but growing worries over AQIM have nevertheless led more nations to lend assistance, mainly at the logistical level.
Why should Mali matter to us? Well, first of all, from a practical standpoint on international security, we ought to try to prevent the next Osama bin Laden from setting up camp in a city that most people believe not to exist.
It also serves as a new test for the doctrine known as Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, a United Nations policy of intervening to prevent mass atrocities when people’s governments are unable (or unwilling) to do so themselves. The intervention in Libya against Qaddafi when he threatened to massacre rebel fighters in Benghazi was a clear, and seemingly successful application of R2P, but it has turned out to result in the wide dispersion and strengthening of AQIM and other terrorist organizations throughout North Africa. It has also met with political resistance from staunchly anti-interventionist nations, namely Russia and China, who felt uneasy about the Libya mission and have repeatedly blocked efforts to intervene in Syria ever since.
Finally, Mali’s crisis provides strong evidence for the importance of continued international aid and development to national security. On a continent with porous borders, rampant corruption, and weak government institutions, the disruption of tyranny and terrorist cells in one country assures the swift spread of extremists to others nearby that are unable to repel them. Withdrawing resources from countries Americans don’t care about is politically easy, but could have dire consequences in the long run. Development assistance is much cheaper and more constructive than the massive military operations that are needed to eradicate terrorist cells that become entrenched in underdeveloped safe haven countries. When budget-hawks call for zeroing out foreign aid, just think of the money and American lives lost in Afghanistan–itself possessing an almost mythic reputation as the “graveyard of empires”–over the past decade. Timbuktu may still seem to be cloaked in the mist of legend, and such remote and powerless states as Mali may simply seem too unimportant to pay attention to, but that’s a fantasy the modern world can no longer afford.
We are tempted to call the shooting in Newtown, Conn. an “unthinkable” crime, but we know that isn’t true. We know we have been here before, coped with the same fear and pain. The American public has developed a macabre and predictable routine for reacting to acts of domestic mass violence. The emotions are real and right, but also far too familiar. Like the five stages of grief, there could also be a model for the stages of processing shootings like those at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, and now Newtown.
In place of denial there is shock and sympathy for the victims, expressed in candlelight vigils, prayers, and donations for affected families. Next comes anger and the need to assign blame, not only to the shooter but to anyone who failed to notice warning signs and stop the tragedy from occurring. The bargaining stage is where people turn to politics to try to find a way out of an unavoidable truth: that this will all happen again. Depression comes as the limitations of public policy to deal with these crimes become clear, followed quickly by acceptance, in the form of setting aside the issue until the next time a Breaking News banner interrupts the day with the latest “unthinkable” crime.
In a critical post after the shooting, the Economist’s “Democracy in America” blog argued that, “Considering the frequency with which gun massacres now occur in America, the media attention they garner, and the failure of that attention either to shift public opinion regarding gun control or to prod the political system to take any action at all, the outpouring of sentiment over the shootings Friday in Newtown, Connecticut is probably best viewed as a ritualistic exercise in mass histrionics.” There’s plenty of sound and fury, but little evidence that it signifies a meaningful shift in Americans’ attitude toward guns.
The magnitude of the shock following the shooting at Sandy Hook has led political leaders to say this time is different, this time there must be a change. How this invigorated bargaining stage will proceed is coming into focus at the time of this writing, but its ultimate outcome is hard to predict.
Is this time really different in terms of the political momentum behind implementing new gun laws? It’s possible, because of a change in how this particular shooting has been politicized. As we are all accustomed to by now, immediately following a mass shooting, it’s only a matter of time until some politician or pundit uses the moment to call for new gun control legislation. Then comes swift pushback from opponents, arguing that “now is not the time to talk about gun control” and admonishing them for politicizing a tragedy.
What is important to understand is that there are two ways of talking about “politicizing” an event. There is the “dirty” way, when a politician capitalizes on an event purely for personal and political gain. But there is also a second way, which occurs when the public concludes that a social issue has reached a sufficient level of concern that it can and should be dealt with through the political process.
Previous shootings have produced widespread shock and alarm, but this latest one appears to have reached a new height in generating public pressure on politicians to take meaningful, preventative actions. Gun control has been thrust back into the political arena not by President Obama, who has never before shown any interest in pursuing new gun laws and has actually approved more easing of gun regulations than tightening of them, but by the public, which has undergone a sharp shift in opinion and has demanded a policy response from the President and Congress.
What will result from this politicization of the issue is hard to predict, and depends on how much momentum is retained after the holidays, after the Fiscal Cliff negotiations, and after a new Congress is sworn into office. The president has moved to keep gun control on the legislative agenda by forming a task force to produce a list of policy recommendations by the end of this month. After that, it’s up to Congress, and particularly the Republican-controlled House to decide whether those policies are given serious deliberation or set aside to collect dust.
Gun control may not even be the only policy under consideration. There’s been talk of deficiencies in our system of mental health evaluations too, among other things. But gun control will remain highly controversial. A Congressional Research Service report, just recently published in response to the Aurora, CO shooting, succinctly summarizes the political divide: “To gun control advocates, the opposition is out of touch with the times, misinterprets the Second Amendment, and is lacking in concern for the problems of crime and violence. To gun control opponents, advocates are naive in their faith in the power of regulation to solve social problems, bent on disarming the American citizen for ideological or social reasons, and moved by irrational hostility toward firearms and gun enthusiasts.”
That’s a tough chasm to cross, but there is something that gun control advocates must come to terms with, and that would be beneficial for them to adopt into their rhetoric. Their refrain has often been, “We need laws to ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again.” This is not a realistic goal, and leads opponents to envision a true violation of the Second Amendment through government-mandated disarmament of the public. There is no policy that can reasonably eliminate the risk of future mass shootings, but there are measures that may reduce their likelihood and frequency without impinging too heavily on citizens’ rights. It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of such regulations, but the extent to which the public and policymakers have realistic expectations and a pragmatic approach to policy reform will determine whether this time really is different, or becomes just another cycle through inefficacious emotional outpouring.
Last month’s election, while being by all accounts clean and decisive, has done little to answer one question: Are we a deeply divided nation, or simply a thoroughly confused one? The time right after a major election is typically used by politicians to interpret their “mandates” for how to lay out their legislative agenda going into the next term, but such a mandate must be based on a clear signal from the electorate. This time, however, they received fairly mixed signals, both in terms of electoral results and in subsequent polling on various policy questions.
The biggest policy issue for the next few months will be figuring out how to deal with the “fiscal cliff,” a combination of sharp tax increases and spending cuts due to go into effect in January unless Congress can come up with a way to avoid it. Interestingly, the fiscal cliff is widely portrayed as an impending calamity that must be avoided at all cost, even though it accomplishes some of the key policy goals that the public has been demanding since the rise of the Tea Party.
What does the cliff mean to you? According to a report by the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, if Congress fails to intervene, middle-income households would see an average tax increase of nearly $2,000 next year. Nationally, this would amount to a significant anti-stimulus policy, almost as big as the stimulus measures enacted to prevent the 2008 financial crisis from turning into a full-fledged depression. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the nation would experience a recession in early 2013, marked by a 0.5% drop in GDP and a temporary spike in unemployment, up to as high as 9.1% (up from 7.9% at the time this was written). On the plus side, though, the dramatic increase in tax revenues, paired with mandatory cuts in government spending, would significantly cut the federal budget deficit and help to slow the increase of the national debt.
So wait, isn’t that what we’ve asking for? In polls conducted by Gallup after the election, 72% of respondents indicated that making major cuts in federal spending should be an extremely or very important part of Obama’s second term agenda. A majority, 56%, said they would be open to policies that would reduce the federal deficit either primarily through tax rate increases or in equal proportion to spending cuts. The fiscal cliff essentially meets these demands, and would have a non-trivial impact on the national debt, yet Gallup also found that 82% of US adults (split evenly across party lines) said that it is extremely or very important for Congress and the president to come to an agreement on how to avoid the fiscal cliff (Only 51% are hopeful that a deal will actually be reached, according to Rasmussen).
As we all know by now, the trouble is that people like the idea of cutting federal spending to reduce the debt and deficit, but are unwilling to let go of the services that that spending provides them. An overwhelming 95% of respondents answered that taking “major steps to restore a strong economy and job market” is an extremely or very important priority for Obama’s second term. Eighty-eight percent said the same for protecting Social Security and Medicare, the main contributors to the growing debt. And there was relatively tepid interest in seeing major cuts to military and defense spending.
These conflicting priorities give lawmakers a limited policy space to work within, which ultimately leads to more symbolic gestures than real solutions. President Obama’s insistence on seeing tax rate increases for the wealthy by repealing the Bush tax cuts for the top income brackets has bordered on being an obsession, yet no one believes it would raise enough revenue to close the budget deficit. Meanwhile, the Republicans, for all of their public bluster on seeking dramatic cuts to federal spending, have only made modest proposals that too often rely on accounting gimmicks to make it look like they’re cutting significantly more than they are.
Even their plans that could actually produce significant cuts are little more than political chess pieces. The compromise reached in 2011 that allowed the US to avoid defaulting on its debts through a procedure called sequestration was designed to be equally unacceptable to both parties in order to force a long-term solution to the debt crisis at a future date. Without a deal, Republicans would be forced to swallow sharp cuts to sacred defense spending, while Democrats would be hit with cuts to cherished entitlement programs. A disingenuous proposal put forward by Speaker Boehner would remove the sequestration cuts to defense, supposedly to help mitigate the fiscal cliff. He knows that this is a betrayal to the original compromise, and one that could never be approved in the Senate or by the president, but he put it out there anyway.
Members of Congress make decisions based on whether they will be blamed for unpopular policies. When it comes to fiscal responsibility, policymakers are now in a difficult position because the changes that need to be made and that people are demanding will also be deeply, deeply unpopular with various sections of the electorate.
For readers in northern Frederick County and into Carroll County, the fiscal cliff debate has suddenly become much more important to watch closely. For better or worse, we’re no longer being represented by a rubber stamp congressman. Chris Van Hollen, who was reelected to represent the newly formed 8th Congressional District is a ranking member on the House Budget Committee, and was a key player in the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations. It will be important for constituents to monitor his role in the fiscal cliff and other budget talks in the coming months and to communicate their priorities to him when possible. That entails a further responsibility: to weigh the proposals that are out there and ensure that our own priorities and wishes are internally consistent. That is no simple task.