The federal government doesn't work because it doesn't have to. Politicians are not capable of compromise in their natural state. They only compromise — or at least seek some vague common ground — when they are required to. Right now, competing politicians can't even talk to each other because they aren't working on the same problem. State politicians aren't nobler than the federals. They just have a common goal imposed on them externally.
Washington has long been a dysfunctional circus. Sometimes a new personality enters the mix, but the broad insanity continues along more or less the same lines. In recent years, the same insanity seems to occur slightly more frequently.
Every few months, we are treated to cable news channels blaring with dramatic concern about the latest fiscal cliff or impending government doom. Tax cuts may be about to expire, some automatic spending cut may be about to take place, or perhaps 18 percent of the federal government might shut down.
People should be forgiven for thinking each one of these scenarios is partly real but mostly exaggerated for the sake of ratings wars among the half of a percent of the population who bothers paying attention to cable news stations.
I want to believe these are real crises, but we seem to have one every few months and they all sound about the same. One party or the other thinks we'll have Armageddon if we don't raise something or cut back something. And no one is quite sure the exact day of the supposed deadline. As the deadline approaches, someone clarifies that the actual deadline is a few weeks later than we first thought.
Ultimately, every crisis is averted. The solution is always about the same. As a temporary measure, we do some slight variation of what we've been doing all along and it buys us another five or six months until we have the debate again. The cable channels will have new music and a new logo. The crisis will have a slightly different name, but the big picture is about the same: nothing much changes.
Congress has some trouble changing because this is what federal politicians do. They all walk around a really nice old building surrounded by sycophantic staff holding their bags, an array of servants rarely seen outside Downton Abbey, and a very serious press corps talking to them in hushed tones about how statesmanlike they are compared to the other people who are causing the problem. It's all very intoxicating and theatrical.
What they lack is an agreement on what exactly their job is. These fiscal cliffs all have a nominal deadline, but it's not clear what must be accomplished before the deadline. You would be excused for thinking they had to produce a budget, a balanced and binding document detailing spending and the revenues to pay for that spending. This is what states produce, and it makes them functional even when they hate each other every bit as much as the federal patricians do.
But at the federal level we move from one stopgap to another, one temporary fix to another. There are no requirements or real deadlines.
This is their ultimate failure. They don't act because they don't have to act. For a politician, nothing is as painful as having to balance a budget. It involves saying no. Not everything can be done. Decisions have to be made, priorities balanced, and someone will be unhappy. No politician in his natural state wants to balance a budget. They do it at the state level because they are forced to. By a date certain, a balanced budget must be passed. No ifs, ands or buts. If they fail, generally speaking, the lower, pre-inflation level of spending for each agency and program continues. Saying yes to a couple of things always trumps saying no to everything so they act.
At the federal level, the consequence of not acting is happy. No decisions, fewer angry people, and all the hard stuff left for future generations. It is conventional wisdom among the establishment of both parties now that actually balancing the budget is both impossible and unnecessary.
Ultimately, federal politicians are children. And they need to be treated like children. They need rules imposed on them from the outside. A balanced budget amendment shouldn't be needed, but it is. They need to have a goal imposed on them because they can't be trusted to do anything responsible.
The sooner we start treating them like kids, the sooner they might clean their room.
Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord.