Why is Reform So Difficult?
New York is the nation’s financial capital and Los Angeles has the entertainment industry, but Washington, D.C. is the Power Town. Over the past three decades I have been fortunate to know some of the key players. I admire all of them, and they are intelligent, hard working and have good intentions.
Unfortunately, far too many of our lawmakers and other public officials focus on the next election rather than long term consequences. That is why entitlement reforms and the deficit are such major problems. They have been ignored for so long that they are now far harder to solve, and the debt for future generations is much greater. Many politicians will not act unless they are absolutely forced to make a decision.
Previous elections have demonstrated that attempting reforms such as changing the eligibility for entitlements results in political suicide. The most recent example is when George W. Bush began his second term by calling for a bipartisan effort to rein in the costs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
These entitlements were by far the biggest economic problems facing the nation, and Bush emphasized how difficult it was to reduce the deficit without reform. He also said Social Security had amassed $4 trillion of unfunded liability, and heading toward bankruptcy.
Bush mounted a 60-day, 60-stop public relations blitz. He said the nation faced an economic tsunami, and quoted Ronald Reagan’s second Inaugural address, “If not us, who? If not now, when?”
His plan to reform Social Security would have allowed the option to manage 18 percent of their contributions as an IRA. This would have resulted in a long term higher percentage of return than the 2 percent they received from the government. Bush believed “a worker, at his or her option, ought to be allowed to put some of their own money . . . in a private savings account, an account that they call their own.”
Democrats never offered an alternative proposal and they would not even discuss changes. They instead ran a campaign promising to “Save Social Security.” The Bush plan was highly unpopular and Democrats gained 30 House seats and recaptured Congress in 2006. Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and corruption were also major issues, and this was the first election in U.S. history in which the Democrats did not lose a single incumbent or open seat in Congress or in a governor’s mansion.
Reflections on the Power Town
Many lawmakers and political appointees enjoy the sound of applause, and the ego gratification of seeing their names in prominent publications. They attend A-list events, and many of them have numerous fans and admirers.
They also live in fear. It is a fear of opinion polls, special interests, and losing power and prestige. That is why hard decisions are avoided and they follow the path of least resistance.
Perhaps this will change in the new Congress. New GOP reforms such as the earmark ban and open rules are positive steps, and I hope the attitude of the Pelosi era is also gone. It was a time when admirable people did not act decently and were trapped in a dysfunctional system.
Instead of addressing problems they denied their existence. Their goals was not to solve problems but to find wedge issues to win elections. The advice of former House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX) was ignored. He said lawmakers had to go beyond opposing the other party, and needed to be constructive. He told his party caucus “We are Americans first and Democrats second.”
I am now reading Bad Boy: The Life And Politics Of Lee Atwater which reminds the reader of an attitude which is certainly not limited to the nation’s capital. The book describes his meteoric rise and the final year in which he struggled with a growing brain tumor.
As the President’s campaign manager and Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Atwater was at the peak of popularity. His list of friends and admirers appeared to be endless.
He had a bulging rolodex, but when it was determined he had a terminal illness, the vast majority of those friends disappeared. I knew Linda Reed who was with Lee every day of that final year. Sally Atwater had to cope with a job, an infant and three other young children. Linda also had to work, but Lee needed help. She went to his rolodex of friends.
Lee got tons of people jobs, and you would have thought many of them would have offered to help in his final days. Some members of the South Carolina crowd whom Lee had been so kind to in the early days at the White House came through. But the bureaucrats, the legions in Atwater’s Army, were nowhere to be seen. Lee couldn’t do anything for people anymore. It was Washington politics at its purest. This is the meanest town in America.