Why has the Congress recently found it so hard to accomplish anything? And what can be done about it?
When Barney Frank spoke at Colby last month, the retired congressman from Massachusetts offered a simple explanation: The problem is tea party Republicans, who, as he put it, “hate government.”
The solution: Vote for Democrats.
Frank’s account was half right. To show that our current problems are a function of the people we’ve elected to office and not structural, he observed that divided government doesn’t always mean gridlock.
As recently as 2008, President George W. Bush and the Democrats in Congress found a way to work together to respond to the financial crisis. Bush and the Democratic leadership agreed that, under the circumstances, the government should act to put more money in the hands of consumers.
Bush, however, wanted tax cuts only. The Democrats wanted more federal spending directed at the poor. The compromise? Tax cuts, with refundable tax credits, so that the tax cuts would mostly benefit the poor.
If the Democratic Congress could work with President Bush during an election in 2008, why can’t the Republican House work with President Barack Obama even now, with the election behind us?
Frank’s answer: The tea party Republicans don’t want to work with the president because they “hate government.” If he had said only that Obama and today’s Republicans are having more trouble finding common ground than Bush and the Democrats of 2008 because the parties are further apart on the issues today than they were five years ago, he would have been entirely correct.
Tea party conservatives today do not agree with the president even about what the problems are, let alone about solutions. To them, big government is the problem.
As they see it, economic growth is being stifled by an explosive growth in government regulation, by economic uncertainty caused not only by new regulations but also by fear about what we will have to do, someday, to pay down the massive new debts we are incurring and by the erosion of personal accountability wrought by our unsustainably expanding, ever-more-generous web of entitlements.
To the Democratic left, the big problems facing us are failures of free markets, requiring big government solutions.
When they controlled the government, during 2009-10, the Democrats created new regulatory agencies (the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), made a virtue of borrowing by calling it “stimulus” and created a massive new entitlement in Obamacare.
When one side demands “less taxing and spending” and the other demands “more taxing and spending,” the obvious compromise point is doing nothing. Our current gridlock, is, as Frank suggests, just a function of the people we’ve elected.
When Frank argued that the tea partyers don’t want to work with the president because they “hate government,” however, he revealed how little he understands his partisan opponents and thus inadvertently illustrated how far apart the two sides really are.
In his remarks at Colby, Frank reminded us of his view that “government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” If that is true, then “government” is just another way of saying “we the people,” and so to fear the government is to fear ourselves.
Moreover, it follows that there is no common purpose that, in principle, the government shouldn’t direct.
What Frank mistakes as irrational hatred is actually his partisan opponents’ principled disagreement with him about the nature of government.
We on the right do not hate government, but we do fear it. Government is the name we give to the institution that alone may legitimately compel obedience to its commands by the use of force.
The things we choose to do together we on the right call families, firms, churches, charities, associations and just about as many other names as there are voluntarily shared purposes in our vast and diverse society.
Once government has used force or the threat of force to make us secure from foreign enemies and to establish the rule of law at home, its most important responsibilities have been accomplished. Every additional task we assign government makes it more powerful and thus more fearsome while also making us less free. Hence our Constitution’s commitment to limited government.
Frank understandably hopes to break the Washington gridlock by a return to the big government consensus of the late Bush and early Obama years. Of course, it is equally true that gridlock would come to an end if people stopped voting for big-government liberals.
Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.