America / Debt / Economy / Fiscal policy

Let He Who Is Without Sin Cast the First Stone

By Chris Hartline

The American political system is broken.  Congress is broken.  Our representatives don’t represent us.  These are common refrains you hear particularly outside of Washington – though inside as well – and they possess some semblance of truth.

The 112th Congress was the most unproductive Congress in 60 years and the 2nd year of the term was the most unproductive ever.  There are varying questions of influence: are members of Congress unduly influenced by money, by the media, by powerful lobbyists (i.e. Grover Norquist)?  And while influence matters and unproductivity matters, the bills that have been passed by Congress over the last two years have been feckless, reckless, and timid.  Congress has failed, to any significant extent, to deal with the debt problem that hinders economic growth and poses a serious threat to our fiscal solvency, while increasing regulation, raising taxes, and risking the full faith and credit of the United States.

All of these things are true, but semblance of truth is not truth outright.  There is more to the story that, while not contradicting the cries of woe from voters around the country, provides invaluable perspective to gain understanding of the current political situation.

That perspective is simple: voters need to take responsibility for their own role in creating our current political climate, for two reasons.

First, voters elected this Congress.  According to the most recent polling, Congress’ approval rating hovers around 15%, slightly lower than the approval rating for cockroaches, Genghis Khan, and Nickelback.  But, in accordance with a trend that has befuddled political scientists for decades, voters rate their own representative much more positively and, in turn, reelect them.

It’s worth pointing out that this is due, in part, to the redistricting that occurred after the 2010 census, which made the vast majority of districts safe seats and, as Nate Silver notes, limits the opportunities for compromise.  But if voters are so disillusioned with politics – and particularly Congress – redistricting does not negate their responsibility to make a change.

The second reason is more and important and, ultimately, more troubling.  Voters agree, by an overwhelming majority, that the United States has a debt problem and must fix it.  According to a 2010 report by the Pew Research Center, 70% of respondents said the debt was a major problem that must be addressed now; 23% said it was a major problem that should be addressed when the economy improves; only 1% said it wasn’t a major problem.

Pew Spending Poll

If the goal is to force Congress to act, then this should be great news, but it doesn’t end there.  In a report a year later, Pew analyzed voters’ feelings on specific government programs that should be cut.  The study found that rather than favor cuts, voters favored increased spending in education, Veterans’ benefits, health care, Medicare, combating crime, energy, scientific research, environmental protection, anti-terrorism defenses, agriculture, and military defense.  The only areas where voters favored cuts were unemployment assistance (by a 1 point margin) and global poverty assistance.

It is clear from this data that while voters agree with the broad goal of deficit and debt reduction, they have not reached the point where they’re willing to make the sacrifices necessary.  Voters believe that government should cut spending, as long as those cuts don’t affect any government program that they benefit from, and with the size and scope of the US Federal Government, that’s not much.

The voters blame Congress for not reaching the sort of “grand bargain” that will solve this crisis, but Congress is merely acting under the incentive structure created by the American founders.  As David Brooks put it in a recent op-ed, “Many voters have decided they like spending a lot on themselves and pushing costs onto their children and grandchildren … They have made it clear that they will destroy any politician who tries to stop them from cost-shifting in this way.”

Rather than politicians being unduly influenced by lobbyists and money – as many voters think –politicians are actually responding to the opinions of their constituents, as the electoral process dictates.  Until voters realize that we will not solve our debt crisis without shared sacrifice by all, Congress will continue to act accordingly.

It has become all too common in our culture to shirk responsibility – we see it now with the debate over gun control.  Gun rights activists immediately place the blame on Hollywood and the individual who committed the crime without even acknowledging that the gun played any role.  Gun control activists immediately blame the gun without even acknowledging that violent video games and the mental health of the perpetrator played any role.

As a culture, we need to start taking responsibility for our own actions and our own lives.  In the debt debate, voters around the country need to realize that if the political system is broken, change it, but that our politicians are responding to their constituents.  And they need to realize that no solution to the debt problem will come without a universal belief that sacrifices must be made by all.

So let’s all be careful when we throw around phrases like “the political system is broken” and “Congress doesn’t represent us” and remember the biblical axiom, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”