Hoover Daily Report

Why Washington Doesn't Work

Monday, March 13, 2000

Over the past twenty years American national government has been unified under the Democrats, fully divided both ways–Republican presidents, Democratic Congress and vice versa–and partially divided. With the possible exception of Reagan's first year, the consensus seems to be that public policy has not shifted much. What accounts for the failure of government to break gridlock? Permit me to offer four reasons.

In the United States, party positions on issues vary across the country. The Democratic Parties in Texas and California differ on gun control. Likewise there will be differences among local and state parties across the 435 congressional districts on affirmative action, tax policy, and many other issues. One reason that members of the same party vary on policy is that the influence of interest groups varies across regions and districts. Environmentalists are more numerous and influential in the West than in the East. The National Organization for Women is more influential in the North than the South. This sorting of the myriad American interests yields conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans who often vote against their party.

The views of voters themselves sort out in similar ways. For example, about 70 percent of Californians of both parties are pro-choice; thus former governor Pete Wilson was pro-choice even though the national party's position is pro-life. In short, one cannot use party control of government to predict policies.

In most votes, a simple majority is not all that is required to win a vote in Congress. The major supermajority provisions are the two-thirds vote required to override the president's veto and Senate Rule XXII (the filibuster), which requires sixty senators to move legislation. These rules enable members of Congress who are far from the middle ground on policy to exert influence on policy.

The varying strength of interest groups, regional differences in voters' views, the need to build supermajorities in Congress-all play a role in government inaction. But perhaps the most fundamental cause is that the issues are difficult and that neither the people nor their representatives know how to solve them and maintain a majority. There is a lack of consensus not only in Congress but among the public. Public opinion favors expanded health coverage but not if taxes are increased or quality is decreased. It is hard to determine whether votes are inherently unrealistic or whether their lack of realism has been induced by decades of promises to solve hard problems at no cost. Whatever the case, it is clear that voters reward politicians like Reagan, who emphasize the positive, and punish those like Mondale, who promised tax increases. We can then expect more promises of pointless solutions to problems from politicians.

Yet making public policy differs from talking about it in an election. In the policy world, presidents must propose how they will deal with health care, the Middle East, and improving educational opportunities. Whoever is elected in the 2000 elections will face hard choices where trade-offs and compromises, not party election rhetoric, will carry the day.