Friday, August 11, 2006

Road to nowhere? Why America is losing faith in its rancorous legislature

Road to nowhere? Why America is losing faith in its rancorous legislature
By Edward Luce and Holly Yeager
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: August 11 2006 03:00 | Last updated: August 11 2006 03:00

Tired but still preppy-looking, Ned Lamont late on Tuesday shouted a familiar question to his supporters, who had gathered to celebrate the millionaire's dramatic victory over Joe Lieberman in the Democratic Senate primary in Connecticut. "How many lobbyists are there in Washington for every member of Congress?" he yelled. "Sixty-three," came back the collective reply.

Mr Lamont's victory owed much to Connecticut Democrats' outrage over Mr Lieberman's unflinching support for President George W. Bush's war in Iraq. But it also owed something to a broader distaste among Americans for politics as usual. Moral alarm over the backroom political culture of America's capital goes back much further even than James Stewart's 1930s film Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Like the popular Hollywood classic, anti-Washington outrage is something Americans rarely tire of.

Mr Lamont may never get to walk Capitol Hill's marbled corridors. He could lose the real election in November when he squares off against his Republican opponent and the wounded but still dangerous Mr Lieberman, who is now running as an independent. But all three candidates will find that bashing Washington plays particularly well in the 2006 midterm campaign.

The American public's cynicism about Congress and politics in general is arguably at an all-time high. According to opinion polls, more than two-thirds of Americans strongly disapprove of Congress's performance in the past two years, while fewer than a quarter approve. Likewise, two-thirds of Americans tell pollsters that they believe their country is heading in the wrong direction.

The reasons are complex. But the numbers are too consistent across different polling groups and over a period of almost a year to be dismissed as a blip. One of the principal causes is the increasingly uncivil nature of congressional politics - an observation on which most Republicans and Democrats agree.

"I don't think I've ever seen the political mood as toxic as this," says John Breaux, a former Democratic senator and now a lobbyist based in Washington. Jennifer Dunn, a former Republican in the House of Representatives and now also a Washington-based lobbyist, concurs: "Politics has never been as partisan as this - this is worse than I've ever seen."

Partly as a result of such partisanship, Congress has enacted very few landmark bills in the past two years. Instead, it has juddered to a rancorous halt on a number of proposals, including immigration reform, fixing America's rapidly escalating social security and healthcare costs, raising the minimum wage (which remains stuck at the 1996 level of $5.15 an hour) and improving the efficiency of the country's wasteful energy market.

However, Congress has been able to overcome its partisan divide to push through measures of dubious value. In the past two years it has enacted a number of heavy expenditure items, such as a $280bn (£148bn, €219bn) highways bill and a $680bn Medicare prescription drugs bill (the largest single real-term increase in spending since Lyndon B. Johnson's 1960s Great Society programme), which most economists say are grossly inefficient.

The highways bill was stuffed with "pork", or specific spending on often needless projects - such as bridges to nowhere and otiose public monuments - targeted at the constituencies of key politicians from both sides of the aisle. Congress has also added thousands of tax breaks for specific lobby groups. America's tax code has doubled in size to 68,000 pages since 1996.

A strong rise in corporate and capital gains tax revenues over the past 12 months has reduced the budget deficit to 2.3 per cent of gross domestic product this fiscal year. But this cyclical windfall has served only to mask the country's rapidly approaching structural deficit, which is set to rise sharply from 2008, when the baby-boom generation starts to retire.

"If people are talking of a 'do nothing' Congress, then the worst inactivity has been failure to address America's looming structural deficit," says Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office. "The longer Congress fails to address the problem the worse it gets."

Political observers cite three reasons why Congress has become so dysfunctional and unpopular in recent years. First, the difference between the parties is very narrow - the Democrats need to recapture only 15 of the House of Representatives' 435 seats and six of the 33 Senate seats that are up for grabs to regain control of both houses. This narrow margin reduces the incentive for bipartisan co-operation.

Before 1994, when Republicans took control of the House in a dramatic landslide, the Democrats had controlled that body for 40 years. Now each election could deliver a reversal of fortunes. "Thin majorities heighten the stakes," says Norman Ornstein, a veteran student of Congress at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank. They create a "winner-takes-all attitude which squashes the incentive for bipartisanship onlegislation".

Second, a diminishing number of congressional seats are truly competitive. In the last elections in 2004, only 2 per cent of House seats changed parties. This is not necessarily because incumbents are popular with their electorates. It owes more to the culture of gerrymandering in which politically appointed commissions redraw district boundaries into ever more bizarre shapes to create an inbuilt advantage for incumbents.

This means that the most interesting electoral races often take place within parties, in pre-election primaries such as this week's Democratic contest in Connecticut. That, in turn, gives ever greater leverage to party activists at the expense of the electorate at large, which tends to be more centrist.

As a result, Republicans are becoming more conservative and Democrats more liberal. This explains why parties spend so much time pandering to their "base" with trivial but symbolic initiatives such as recent Republican attempts to ban flag-burning and the singing of the Star Spangled Banner in Spanish. "It would be nice if we could undertake social conservative initiatives in odd years as much as we do in even [election] years," says Sam Brownback, a leading Christian conservative and Republican senator for Kansas.

And third, in spite of the declining number of competitive contests, the cost of financing elections in America keeps rising. One driver of electoral inflation is the increasing difficulty of capturing voters' attention, which means candidates are hiring more advertising consultants and marketing experts to find new ways of getting noticed. Most of the money raised by the parties is spent on the very few open races.

Party leaders reward junior lawmakers who raise the most funds by handing them the best positions on the most influential committees - particularly the appropriations and ways and means committees that control Capitol Hill's key spending and tax agendas. Inevitably, this has corroded political ethics and the quality of legislation.

Last December Tom DeLay, Republican House majority leader, was forced to resign over campaign fraud charges. In April Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a Republican representative, was imprisoned for taking bribes from a defence contractor. William Jefferson, a Democratic representative, is under investigation by federal agents for allegedly accepting bribes from an Africanbusinessman.

Washington is beset by rumours of impending corruption scandals. "The opportunities for enrichment in politics have grown hugely," says Mr Ornstein. "It is hard to imagine anyone - who has not been paid to say otherwise - who would disagree that there has been a sharp deterioration in congressional ethics in the last few years."

Against this background, it is unsurprising Mr Lamont's rallying cry found such an echo among voters. Since 1994, the number of registered lobbyists in Washington has more than tripled to almost 40,000 as the opportunities to influence Congress have grown. Often the lobbyists are former lawmakers. According to the conservative Cato Institute, more than half of the Republican representatives who left Congress between 1996 and 2002 moved to "K Street" - the collective name for Washington's lobby groups.

Perhaps uncoincidentally, the number of legislative "earmarks" - or "pork" items - has almost doubled over the same period. "If I had my way I would impose a lifetime ban on lawmakers taking jobs at institutes to which they have directed earmarks," says Grover Norquist, an anti-tax Republican who runs his own lobby group. "In a typical earmark you raise money for a university, which then gives you a stipend when you retire."

Will the midterm elections make any difference? Most polls suggest there is an anti-incumbent mood in America that will almost certainly benefit the Democrats, assuming they can efficiently target the 33 House seats that are considered competitive. But general voter disaffection will not automatically translate into large changes in outcomes. Polls say that while only 23 per cent of Americans approve of Congress as a whole, much higher proportions do approve of their localrepresentatives.

According to Frank Luntz, a leading Republican consultant, motivation among Democratic voters is far higher than among Republicans disillusioned with the failure of a Republican-controlled legislature and presidency to curtail the size of government or win the war in Iraq. "Voters will not necessarily switch parties in November," says Mr Luntz. "But it looks like a lot of Republican voters will not bother to vote, while the Democrat voters are itching for revenge."

But even if Mr Luntz's prediction proves correct, it is unclear a Democratic Congress would behave much differently from the one it replaced. Given the bitter climate, it is likely that a Democrat-controlled Congress would also be highly partisan.

Some Democrats are talking about launching impeachment proceedings against Mr Bush over his administration's alleged abuses of executive power in the "war on terror" since 2001. Meanwhile, Democrats are as complicit as their Republican opponents in their use of earmarks over the past few years.

Regardless of what happens to Mr Lamont in November, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that "K Street" will emerge a victor, whichever party prevails. "Every time I look out of my window I can see Washington is booming - there are condos under construction everywhere," says Ms Dunn, whose lobbying activities keep her closely in touch with former colleagues on the Hill. "Washington just keeps getting bigger."


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