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Is America Ungovernable?

If you think lending his name to a fallacy is Pete Wehner's only contribution to public life, you're oh so mistaken. The former Karl Rove aid has an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal blasting the liberal whiners who think that President Obama's struggles have some relation to creaky government institutions or a nihilistic opposition. First, he insists the GOP does too have positive solutions to offer:

The charge that the GOP has no alternatives to offer is demonstrably false. Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, for one, has presented his substitute in the form of his "Patient's Choice Act" and "A Roadmap for America's Future.

Okay. It's not literally the case that zero members of the Republican Party have proposed any policy alternatives to the Obama administration. You've got Paul Ryan, the Ayn Rand-influenced radical anti-statist (Wehner has called Rand's philosophy "morally indefensible") peddling his plan to abolish Social Security and Medicare as social insurance programs. But Republicans, including Ryan himself, furiously insist that Ryan's plan is not "the Republican plan." In other words, it's not an idea that the party is willing to hold up as a party alternative to the Democratic plans, so that voters can compare the two proposals side-by-side. It's just an idea that exists for the purpose of demonstrating that the Republican Party has ideas, while the party goes on picking apart at the details of Obama's plan and promising to start fresh with some painless bipartisan plan that really works (but not Paul Ryan's!)

Wehner further argues that recent presidents have proven the Senate filibuster does not render the country ungovernable:

It's worth noting that Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush each passed significant pieces of legislation—tax cuts, welfare reform, education, terrorist surveillance and Medicare prescription drugs—with broad bipartisan support.

Let's step back for a moment and think about what "ungovernable" means. There are three kinds of problems that make more effective policy impossible. The first is that, in many areas, economic special interests block policy changes that lack deep public opposition. I'm thinking of farm subsidies, tax loopholes, wasteful health care spending, financial regulation, teacher compensation, defense pork, and clean energy. The second is public fiscal illiteracy -- voters want to keep taxes low on everybody but the rich, preserve every penny of entitlement spending, and balance the budget. Any attempt to bring the government's revenue and outlays into line will be met with a public outcry, especially if the public is being whipped up by an opposition party eager to bring down the majority and gain power for itself. Sometimes problems one and two interact with each other (as when attempts to rationalize health care spending are painted as reductions in care or death panels.)

Then third, the structure of the Senate allows a minority that recognizes that the path to power lies in the failure of the majority to block any public policy change. This is an especially powerful tool if the minority has either the special interests or public fiscal illiteracy on its side.

Now, welfare and education do represent fairly successful policy reforms. But these are exceptions precisely because they lack either powerful constituents (education avoided antagonizing the teachers unions) and don't require financial sacrifice by the middle class. (I'd likewise say that suspected terrorists lack much in the way of lobbying support or public sympathy.)

Most of Wehner's examples are actually examples of, not exceptions to, government dysfunction. I'd say this dysfunction has cemented itself into place mostly over the last twenty years. President Reagan did enact a huge, deficit-ballooning tax cut, but he recognized the damage and subsequently clawed back some of the lost revenue and reformed the loophole-ridden tax code. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both enacted significant deficit reduction measures.

But the Republican Party decided that such measures were totally anathema, and ever since then, has aligned itself behind both the special interests and public whim. President Bush passed a huge tax cut. Then, rather than repair the damage as the previous Republican Presidnts had done, Bush followed it up with more tax cuts, the latter of which was an unprecedented K Street giveaway. He fashioned a prescription drug benefit that had no revenue offsets and was designed to maximize profits for the insurance and pharmaceutical industry. He increased farm subsidies and steel tariffs.

It's certainly not the case that America is ungovernable if you think shoving hundreds of billions of dollars in new entitlements, lower taxes and corporate subsidies out the door represents governing. I, however, don't. Meanwhile, the country faces some serious problems: a costly and cruel healthcare system, an energy system that contributes to damaging climate change, and an unsustainable deficit. I don't see how any of these problems can be solved or even significantly ameliorated under the present setup. That's my definition of ungovernable.

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