Washington is drowning America

What the debt-ceiling impasse says about Washington

When I moved from Britain in 2005 to live and work in the US, I was a born-again admirer of the American people, the American project and the American system of government. I had no patience with the view that the country was entering its twilight years. I was a militant anti-declinist.

Six years on, I am having second thoughts. I am not quite ready to defect, but like any fair-minded observer I am impressed by Washington’s determination to prove the pessimists right.

You could say that the debt-ceiling impasse, which prompts such thoughts, is out of the ordinary and no basis for prediction. It is an extreme case, admittedly: regardless of how it is resolved, Congress and the White House have lately taken fiscal irresponsibility to a new level. In another way, though, the breakdown is representative. Dysfunction in Washington is now so acute that many areas of policymaking have all but shut down.

We anti-declinists have always had two main answers to this kind of gloom. The first is that the underlying strengths of the US economy have nothing to do with Washington, and remain undimmed. The second is that the country’s founders deliberately built dysfunction into the constitution, because they wanted to keep the federal government in check. Ignore the sound and fury on Capitol Hill, we argued. Washington’s incapacity, if you want to call it that, was part of the formula for US success – and see how well the design has worked.

There is still a lot of truth in both arguments. The wellspring of US success is a culture that emphasises, as it has from the beginning, hard work, self-reliance, a desire to better oneself and one’s family, and the need now and then to take risks. This culture is uniquely supportive of effort, innovation and entrepreneurship, and so far as I can see these traits show little sign of weakening.

Limited government was another condition for US success, and the constitution provided for it. By European standards, anyway, checks and balances kept the federal government in bounds. Possibly more important, they prevented the ruinous pendulum swings of policy that unchecked majoritarian democracies – think of Britain in the decades after the second world war – have succumbed to.

So what has changed? First, political polarisation in Washington and the country at large has weakened the capacity to govern too much. Second, the US faces challenges that test this diminished capacity in new ways.

The founders intended delay, deliberation and compromise – not paralysis. In recent weeks and months, the new incapacity has been self-evident. But the debt-ceiling impasse is only one instance. This weekend thousands of workers were laid off because of a failure to renew the Federal Aviation Administration’s operating authority – just another partisan breakdown, hardly worth mentioning, in hitherto routine legislative business.

Across government, leadership positions are unfilled because the administration cannot get its nominees confirmed. Denial of fiscal support is another weapon. The administration’s healthcare reform faces a campaign of legal, procedural and budgetary attrition that is especially vicious.

If positions were reversed, Democrats would feel just as entitled to disable, by any means necessary, their enemies’ legislative accomplishments. In the past, a sufficient number of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans were present in Congress to support bipartisan compromise. That centre, notwithstanding the Senate’s “Gang of Six”, has all but vanished. Instead of pushing for compromise, the constitution’s checks and balances therefore yield gridlock. If policies such as Dodd-Frank or the Affordable Care Act do become law, they lack broad support, and the next Congress sets about dismantling them.

This deterioration in the country’s governance would be worrying in itself. But the problems confronting the US have shifted too. Often in the past, noisy impotence was not a bad response to the supposed crises of the moment. This is no longer so true. On several fronts, “do nothing” is now a formula for likely decline. Sustained and purposeful action is required. The federal government has less capacity to act intelligently just when it needs more.

The budget is one such case. Everybody understands that on current policies the US is heading for fiscal collapse. After months of posturing on both sides, the likeliest outcome of the debt-ceiling fight is a temporary fix linked to a promise to confront the problem another time. Better than default, but not good enough.

Far from being settled, the fundamentals of healthcare policy are still contested. Unless Washington can heal itself, the resulting mess is going to get worse – and healthcare already costs the US nearly a fifth of its gross domestic product.

By international standards, the US schools system is failing. The US tax system, after 25 years of incompetent tinkering, is a joke. The best one can say for US immigration policy is that it makes the tax system look good. Nobody denies the need for action. The system will not budge.

On one side you have the unrivalled energy and ambition of the American worker. On the other you have the unrivalled complacency, self-righteousness and bloody-mindedness of Washington. I never thought I would say this, but I am starting to wonder which will prevail.


More columns at www.ft.com/clivecrook

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