Larry Summers is a brilliant, award-winning economist. Last week, in his monthly column for the Washington Post, he opined about politics and history (reprinted in the Star Tribune on April 16 under the headline “Gridlock, for lack of a better word, is good”).
Our advice, as political scientists, is that Summers should stick to economics.
Summers painted a rosy scenario, saying that the frustration people feel at the slowness and gridlock of recent years is misplaced — that things were just as bad, if not worse, in the early 1960s; that the failures to enact reforms in health care and welfare during the Nixon years were a good thing, and that more gridlock, not less, would have been helpful during the George W. Bush years.
Summers also lauded the economic policies that have enabled the United States to avoid the double- or triple-dip recessions that have hit Europe, as well as passage of the Affordable Care Act and financial regulation, and advances in energy and the widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage.
We were left wondering what political system Summers has been living in the past several years. This level of partisan polarization, veering from ideological differences into tribalism, has not been seen in more than a century. The U.S. system has always moved slowly, but in times past, major advances were achieved with some level of cooperation or restraint, if not consensus, between the parties. No more.
The progress on energy and the shift in public opinion on same-sex marriage have occurred with little or no relationship to Washington’s political pathologies. The policy triumphs that Summers trumpeted — stabilization and economic stimulus, health reform, and financial regulation — were all achieved in the first two years of the Obama administration over the united, vociferous opposition of Republicans in Congress.
The stimulus package passed in early 2009 was a major step to avert depression but was watered down and diverted into unproductive uses because of House Republicans’ strategic unwillingness to cooperate and the need to accommodate senators of both parties to get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster — one of countless episodes in the past five years when the filibuster has been used in unprecedented ways.
The Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank reforms were enacted despite GOP obduracy and promiscuous use of the filibuster, in part because Democrats for a short time had 60 votes in the Senate and kept their members together. But the quality of both laws was diminished by the unwillingness of members of the minority to vote for the final product on the floor after many concessions they requested had been agreed to during committee markups.
More important, passing laws in this fashion left nearly half the polity viewing the legislation as illegitimate. Efforts followed to demonize and hamstring the laws as they moved toward implementation — including the unprecedented blockage for years of highly qualified nominees to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
It is true that politicians of both parties came together in the fall of 2008 to save the financial system and economy from utter disaster — but only after House Republicans blocked the initial bailout plan and were chastened by a sharp drop in the stock market. That was followed in 2011 by congressional Republicans’ reprehensible use of the federal debt limit as a hostage, resulting in the first-ever downgrade in the United States’ credit rating. We are not confident that the result would be the same if there were an equally urgent need for action today to save the global economy.
To be sure, the United States has done better than Europe. But years after the initial crisis, and in significant part because of the shortcomings of our political system, we are still sputtering, having missed multiple opportunities to emerge from the financial crisis in a far better way.
Finally, Summers’ idea that climate change and inequality are issues not of gridlock but of vision forgets the fact that serious debates about policy avenues in these areas are impossible if half the political arena believes that climate change is a hoax, and if one political party is animated by the Grover Norquist no-tax pledge and the Mitt Romney vision of a nation of 53 percent makers and 47 percent takers.
Yes, there are signs of progress in our political system. The universe of problem-solvers in the Senate has increased since the 2012 elections. But the broader pathologies in our politics remain.
For all the problems that existed in previous decades, in a system designed not to act with dispatch, there was a strong political center, with responsible bipartisan leadership. The same cannot be said today.
Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Thomas E. Mann is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. They are coauthors of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.” They wrote this article for the Washington Post.