Can Washington Change?

Jonathan Rauch says probably not. We asked a group of experts, inside and outside Washington, whether he's right.


Christopher Cox
Yes, Washington can change. But it will require the election of enough people who wish to change it. In 1994, two-thirds of the U.S. Senate was exempt from facing the voters. Especially since the Senate requires a 60 percent vote to accomplish anything even remotely controversial, it's rather plain that the same group that has devoted itself to the care and feeding of Leviathan for two generations is still in a position to stave off reform.

Meanwhile, the Republican majority in the House is the slimmest of any party in nearly 40 years. And even if only the editors of REASON and their immediate families composed the majority in both the House and Senate, there's still the small matter of Bill Clinton, the 43 percent solution left over from 1992. By vetoing anything and everything that cuts government, he effectively commands two-thirds of the votes in both chambers.

While America has no party willing to call itself socialist, we do have an admitted socialist in the House (Bernie Sanders of Vermont) who votes with the Democratic Party 97 percent of the time. This telling fact reveals the Democrats to be America's closet socialists. Unfortunately for them, as the 20th century draws to a close their ideology has suffered global defeat. Its leading state practitioners are dead or in denial: The Soviet Union collapsed under socialism's weight, while communist China pretends to the world that it is a free country in order to avoid defending the indefensible. Save for America's universities and the likes of Fidel Castro and Gennady Zyuganov, there is no one left to stand up for socialism.

Hence there is no longer a future for the party that has controlled our government in Washington by hook and crook for my entire lifetime. To survive this long, they have had to employ professional bait-and-switch artists like Bill Clinton. It can't last. It might not even survive the next election.

Christopher Cox is a member of Congress from California's 47th District and chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee.

Ed Crane
There are, of course, reasons for the systemic growth of government. The tyranny of the status quo, concentrated benefits and diffuse costs, "public choice" self-interest on the part of politicians and bureaucrats, all lead to a government growth imperative. Yet Americans clearly desire less government–much less. The single strongest piece of evidence for that proposition is that 80 percent of them support term limits. It's hard to believe that Americans overwhelmingly prefer a citizen legislature over one populated with professional politicians because they believe it will bring them more government.

And term limits are one of two essentially process-oriented changes that I believe can radically change the culture inside the Beltway and lead to a dramatic downsizing of the federal leviathan. The other is the elimination of campaign contribution limits.

Term limits are key because they will fundamentally change the way Washington works. That's why a Gallup poll showed that a majority of congressional aides, corporate lobbyists, and federal bureaucrats oppose term limits. The most common argument for term limits is Lord Acton's dictum that power tends to corrupt. True. The less time in Washington a congressman spends, the better. A more powerful argument is that term limits solve an adverse selection problem: Simply put, the wrong people tend to seek office in the first place.

Today, a potential citizen legislator sees few open seats, knows that odds are 10-1 he'll lose against an incumbent, and that even if he did win he'd have to serve a long time to have much influence. Real term limits–six years in the House–would change that dynamic. A culture that accepted people serving for just one term would likely develop, allowing Congress to revisit the mountain of bad laws that are currently protected by careerists. The common sense of a citizen legislature would give us Medical Savings Accounts, privatized Social Security, a repeal of the income tax, and much more.

Finally, for citizen participation to flourish in politics and for the two parties to feel some outside competition we should eliminate contribution limits to federal campaigns, have full disclosure, and create an open, dynamic political system. Such a system will challenge incumbents and allow individuals who are not career politicians or professional "activists" to effectively make their case to the American people.

Under the current system we're spending less than $3.00 per eligible voter per election cycle on congressional races. That's not enough, given the huge impact Congress currently has on our lives. Unlimited contributions will also take away the artificial bias the Federal Election Campaign Act has created in favor of the media. Why should Katherine Graham, Garry Trudeau, or Rush Limbaugh give the equivalent of millions of dollars in support of their candidate or cause when we're limited to $1,000? If the answer is the First Amendment, well, it's meant for all of us, not just the media.

In addition, the growing renewed interest in the enumerated powers doctrine of the Constitution (including, of course, the 10th Amendment) will facilitate fundamental downsizing. And if that's not enough, the culture in cyberspace is quite libertarian. Millions of Americans are learning how to conduct business and solve problems over the Internet, making the federal government less and less important to America in the 21st century.

Ed Crane is president of the Cato Institute.

Steven Hayward
Can Washington change?!? Is this an invitation to become a humorist? Readers may well find laughable the optimistic view that Washington can, and indeed is likely to, change over the next few years. For the better. No, really.

The hand-wringing about the collapse of the 104th Congress has blinded a lot of very bright people, including the congressional leaders of the purported "revolution," about some fundamental lessons of politics. The principal defect of this Congress is that it has believed its own press clippings–first that it was the most noble and revolutionary body since the Continental Congress, and now that it is the worst legislative body since Cromwell's Long Parliament. It is of course neither thing, though Cromwell's famous words–"You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing"–may be appropriate.

The second unremarked lesson of the present moment is that you can't change the government unless you control it. To adapt that great Aristotelian phrase for yet another purpose, controlling Congress is the necessary but not sufficient condition for changing government. Here our historian/House speaker has badly misread the lesson of history (the peril of studying European instead of American history, I suppose). While Gingrich likes to think of the present moment as the successor to the New Deal realignment of the 1930s, this Congress didn't pay much attention to its closest historical analogue, the Congress elected in 1930. In the off-year election of 1930, Democrats captured the House and ended a long era of Republican rule. But the New Deal revolution couldn't really begin until President Hoover was replaced and more Democrats were added to Congress. Instead of finishing off Hoover by passing legislation in 1931 and 1932, the Congress did nothing, which was even worse for Hoover. The 104th Congress thought it would finish off Clinton by legislating. We know how that story has played out.

The third lesson is that major change is only possible when there are big partisan majorities. Most significant expansions of government–Medicare is the best example–came at moments of swollen partisan majorities. Shrinking government will also require large majorities. The Republican majority at the moment is very thin (in the Senate it is arguable whether there is a majority at all). A disastrous second term from Clinton–a likely possibility–might set the stage for a large Republican majority down the road.

But, a cynic will rightly respond at this point, even a large and relatively principled Republican majority is unlikely to be able to deliver real change in the face of the "iron triangle" reform-thwarting machine. Ordinarily I make this argument myself. In the fullness of time, however, historical trends may come to overwhelm particular obstacles to change. Washington didn't change into what it is today spontaneously, as an acorn becomes an oak spontaneously. Washington grew for decades amid a general climate of opinion that "market failure" required the remedy of expanded government. Today, opinion is crystallizing that "government failure" requires the remedy of smaller government and market solutions. This trend is unlikely to be reversed, as the contradictions and incompetence of government will only become more obvious as time passes.

This doesn't mean that the status quo will lay down its arms and surrender, or that public opinion will always be clear-headed about the issues involved. To the contrary, each battle will require brutal, hand-to-hand combat. Many battles will be lost along the way (did I hear someone say "telecom act" or "minimum wage"?). The general conditions of the battlefield, however, favor our side. We should box on.

Contributing Editor Steven Hayward is vice president, research, for the Pacific Research Institute.

Susanne Lohmann
Modern democracies are trapped in a collective dilemma. In many cases, government policies are biased in favor of special interests at the expense of the general public. Pork-barrel politics can take on monetary form, as with subsidies or tax breaks, but they may also consist of market interventions, as with regulatory policy or trade policy. Such policies are often inefficient in the sense that the total losses imposed on the majority exceed the total gains enjoyed by the minority. While special interests form a minority on any one policy issue, just about every citizen is a member–whether active or not–of some special interest group on some policy issue; indeed, many citizens are affiliated with more than one special interest group. Each citizen prefers being favored by government policy even at the expense of inefficiencies imposed on the society at large. But, relative to the status quo involving inefficient government policies on all dimensions, each citizen would arguably be better off if government did not cater to special interests at all.

Voters clamor for government to streamline and reduce the scope of its redistributive activities. But any serious attempt to implement the expressed wish of the general public requires cutting the pet programs of special interests; and any politician who would do so can count on being dead on arrival at the polls. Yet in the aggregate special interests are the general public. Because voters are willing to punish government for doing what would appear to be good for them, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that special interest gridlock is due to some kind of voter illusion.

The persistence of this collective dilemma is puzzling. Political philosophers have threatened us with a tyranny of the majority–but we suffer under a tyranny of many minorities that sum up to The People. Still, it would seem that politicians should have incentives to act efficiently. Surely, if economists are correct in identifying the huge social dead-weight losses associated with political handouts to special interests, then an incumbent who eradicated such inefficiencies would preside over an increase in standards of living that would sweep him to re-election. If he is too short-sighted to follow this prescription, then it would seem that political competition should allow society to break free from special interest gridlock. Surely a political entrepreneur who stood for election offering to eliminate all the perks enjoyed by special interests would be elected unanimously. If not, why not?

Here's the problem: Special interests are better informed than the general public. Each voter knows how well off she is. She also knows that her wealth and well-being are affected by various government policies, but as a member of the general public she experiences policy consequences only indirectly, as mediated by complex social and market forces. As a special interest, however, she is very well informed about government policy.

Now suppose the government implements a policy that amounts to taking away $1.00 from the general public and giving 90 cents to special interests, with 10 cents standing for the social dead-weight losses of redistribution. As a result, the incumbent's electoral support increases. Why? The general public notices that it is worse off by $1.00, but it is unsure whether to blame the government or other forces. The special interest notices that it is better off by 90 cents, and it can assign the political responsibility for its good fortunes very precisely. At the margin, the government loses some electoral support among the general public, but this loss is outweighed by votes gained among special interests. Thus, we end up with a society in which each voter gets 90 cents on the dimensions of public policy where she is a special interest and pays $1.00 on all policy dimensions where she is part of the general public.

Now we can see why political competition is impotent. The general public cannot effectively monitor whether a political candidate who promises to eliminate the policy bias toward special interests will keep his promise. Once elected, he shares the electoral incentives of his predecessors to favor special interests who are better able to monitor his performance.

Are there any solutions to the problem of special interest gridlock? Proposals for reform are often directed at real or perceived deficiencies of the political process, political institutions, or political elites. It is useful to note, however, that pork-barrel politics occurs across the world in countries with different poli-tical systems and political cultures. It makes little sense to explain special interest handouts with, say, a corrupt Congress responding to campaign contributions when similar patterns of government policy are observed in countries where monetary contributions to political candidates play an insignificant role, in some cases because campaigns are publicly financed.

Instead, I propose that the problem lies with The People themselves. A proposal for reform that does not come to grips with the informational asymmetry between the general public and special interests is unlikely to succeed. Overcoming this asymmetry is not easy, and perhaps impossible. We are not talking about simply producing a 10-second TV soundbite–"The government is taking away $1.00 from you and giving 90 cents to special interests."

The reason why we have representative democracy in the first place is because government policy is complex. The People, who do not have incentives to become informed about complex policies that marginally affect their lives, delegate political decision making to elected representatives. On any given policy issue, there are some people–special interests–who have a greater stake in the outcome, and they have incentives to become informed and monitor the government's performance. In response, the government has incentives to favor special interests at the expense of the general public–not to speak of the inefficiencies created by such redistributive policies. Special interest gridlock is an integral part of representative democracy. It is here to stay.

Susanne Lohmann is an associate professor of political science at UCLA.

William H. Mellor III
It wasn't long ago that libertarians were rightly lauding James Buchanan's Nobel prize and the insights he provided through public choice theory. His insights, of course, demonstrated the insatiable and self-enhancing nature of government. Likewise libertarians have long appreciated F.A. Hayek's and Milton Friedman's prescriptions for non-governmental social organization. That Reason chooses to dedicate much of an issue to the question of "Can Washington change?" reflects the fact that twice in the past 16 years, libertarians have been seduced with the prospect of fundamental change brought about through the electoral process.

In each instance–the Reagan administration, in which I served, and the 1994 elections–all of our zealous intentions and wishful thinking couldn't overcome the incentives and institutional inertia we were all aware of at the outset. For example, while I was in the Reagan Energy Department, we dramatically reduced energy regulations, but it was clear to all concerned that we were never going to be serious about dismantling the Energy Department despite all the vaunted rhetoric. And when the Republicans finally had a shot at ending welfare, they produced a bill over 400 pages long, ultimately driven more by block-grant hungry governors than by sound welfare policy. It should therefore not be surprising that the answer to the question "Can Washington change?" is basically no. Washington is what it is–same as it ever was.

There will continue to be opportunities in Washington to limit the federal leviathan in specific ways, and there may be possibilities for Berlin Wall like breakthroughs on issues such as Social Security. But the more propitious focus for libertarians should be away from issues defined by Washington politics and on such matters as establishing a rule of law conducive to a society of free and responsible individuals. Whether the issue is economic liberty, property rights, or the First Amendment, the Constitution provides the means to check Washington's real-world impact. At the same time, policy prescriptions for the state and local level should be a priority not merely as a matter of devolution, but to restore responsibility and accountability in the government closest to the people. And again, the Constitution properly construed should check grassroots tyranny and provide a legal climate in which individual liberty can flourish in communities built around voluntary associations, religious and secular.

Finally, we should take heart in the force of our ideas and principles, which, despite what may be happening in Washington, are indeed still resounding around the world with unprecedented vigor. For two centuries, the United States has been the world's beacon of liberty. That role was not created by, nor can it be preempted by, Washington.

William H. Mellor III is president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice.

Grover G. Norquist
The Republican victory of November 1994 has mortally wounded the welfare/warfare state, just as the hairline fracture in the Berlin Wall in the fall of 1989 doomed the Soviet Empire. The Republican Congress passed a seven-year budget plan that spends $300 billion less in the year 2002 than Bill Clinton asked for. That $300 billion in reduced spending (at an average salary or grant of $50,000 per person) translates into 6 million more Americans who, in the Republican future, will be in the private sector. In Clinton's future, those 6 million people would have been government employees or recipients of government loans, grants, or welfare. This demographic shift moves 6 million Americans from dependence on the federal government–where they have what Marxists call "objective class interests" that make them Democrats–to the private sector, where, as taxpayers, their objective class interests make them Republicans.

Since the Democratic Party is the party of government, it should be relatively painless for the Republicans to reduce government spending, downsize government, and lay off Democrat precinct captains. True, Bill Clinton has vetoed much of the Republican legislation in 1995 and 1996, but despite the Clinton veto pen, Republicans have kept the budget on its glide path to balance in 2002, cutting $42 billion from the budget in 1995 and 1996 combined.

Republicans have demonstrated the ability to build a coalition and consensus for budget cutting and devolution from Washington to the states that would not have been conceivable only two years ago. A Republican Congress passed the "Freedom to Farm" act drafted by the congressmen on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees who would have been presumed most hostile to phasing out all farm subsidies and ending government control over planting. Rep. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) designed the model for dismantling statist agriculture programs. Farmers, who for the past 50 years were locked into subsidy dependence, were offered a deal: less money in return for more freedom. That same deal was offered to state governments, which have heretofore opposed having welfare and Medicaid sent to the states. The trade: less federal money for more freedom from federal regulations and restrictions.

Similar offers can be made in education: We'll send you a $3,000 voucher rather than spending $9,000 to educate each child, but you the parent can control where your child is educated. This was the GOP proposal for the District of Columbia; other federal education monies could be similarly voucherized. Less money, in return for more freedom.

One can already see the outlines of an agreement heading to privatize Social Security and Medicare. Giving younger Americans the opportunity to opt out of the government Ponzi schemes and into individually held and controlled retirement accounts brings about a phaseout of Social Security payments in return for a phaseout of Social Security taxes.

Bill Clinton's vetoes have slowed this process but cannot prevent it. The next four years will see the election of Bob Dole and a flurry of tax-cutting and government-dismantling legislation mirroring the activism of the 1964-68 Great Society–or it will see the re-election of Bill Clinton and the phased surrender of big government. The model for a Clinton second term is Richard Nixon's presidency from 1972 to 1975. A hostile Congress will use the battering ram of Whitewater and the Arkansas scandals to force Clinton to throw his allies overboard and continue to dismantle the state.

The players are in place. The strategy is set and tested. In 20 years, the American government will be half its present size.

Grover G. Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform.

John J. Pitney Jr.
One way to address the possibility of change in Washington is to picture a dialogue between a pessimist and an optimist.

Pessimist: It's hopeless. For years, Republicans yammered about government, and when they finally win Congress, they don't scrap a single Cabinet department. Heck, they can't even get rid of the chocolate-smearing pornographers at the National Endowment for the Arts. It's as if Carry A. Nation burst into the saloon with a Nerf hatchet.

Optimist: Put down that cup of hemlock. Washington can change, and it already has. In the 1980s, the Military-Industrial Complex lurked everywhere. Its lobbyists worked the corridors of Congress, while the payrolls of military bases and arms factories ensured grassroots support for the defense budget. But when the Cold War ended, even this gigantic political machine could not stop history. Between 1986 and 1996, inflation-adjusted defense spending dropped by nearly one-third. That's real change.

Pessimist: No, it isn't. Washington hasn't set us free: It's just transferred custody of the chains. In constant 1987 dollars, defense did fall by $79 billion during the past 10 years, but Social Security, Medicare, and other payments for individuals went up by $207 billion. The Military-Industrial Complex is a pip-squeak compared with the Greedhead-Geezer Complex. Any time a politician tries to curb the growth in their benefits, he or she ends up as another notch on their Metamucil jar.

Optimist: Things will change, because the system cannot continue. Medicare's health-insurance trust fund goes bust in 2001. Twelve years later, Social Security payments outpace revenues and the system starts tapping its "trust fund," which runs empty a decade or two after that. As the baby boomers edge closer to retirement, they'll see that there is no alternative to privatization of the old-age entitlements. With luck, that realization will come sooner rather than later–but it will come. And then, the odds will finally favor reform.

Pessimist: Since when do national crises lead to less government power? After the stock-market crash of 1929, did Congress seek new ways to encourage free markets? No, it passed the Smoot-Hawley tariff, which helped turn a problem into a calamity. Listen carefully to the current debates: Even the Republican congressional leaders say that they want to preserve the entitlements, not end them. There's not much reason to think that Congress or the people will respond rationally to the coming crisis. It could be like Atlas Shrugged: Things just get worse until all the lights go out–except that we don't have John Galt.

Optimist: But we do have a number of lawmakers who are serious about reform. And if you look at the elections of 1992 and 1994, you'll see that their ranks are growing. Nothing's automatic, of course, but there's a reasonable chance that they will win in the end.

Pessimist: In the end, we're all dead. Please pass the hemlock.

John J. Pitney Jr. is an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Randy T. Simmons
Jonathan Rauch suggests that the public knows what it is doing when reforms are blocked. He is wrong. Voters do not know what they are doing, because their roles as beneficiaries and as taxpayers are not directly connected and do not discipline each other. Economically prudent decision making is not demanded by any voter's own budget constraints. In playing out their taxpayer role, well-meaning, public-spirited citizen-voters support reductions in their own tax payments while pursuing increases in benefits to themselves. Thus, citizen-voters are able to make ethical imperatives out of logically contradictory agendas. A citizen-voter, for example, might advocate increased spending on defense, social programs, and consumer protection while also promoting lower taxes, balanced budgets, and reduced government controls.

Voters may hope that other taxpayers, preferably "wealthy" ones, can be forced to finance their private desires and altruistic impulses. Besides, not to seek subsidies, feel-good social programs, or ideological preferences when others do seek them makes little sense. Everyone is caught up in what could be called "the budgetary tragedy of the commons," a frenzied scramble over the elusive public pie.

Elected officials contribute to the problem, as they realize that any given action or policy will please some voters, displease others, and escape the attention of most. It will also affect an official's power or influence with colleagues, bureaucrats, and organized interests. Reconciling these differences requires bargains, compromises, logrolling, and strategic choices. Successful politicians are those who can adopt policies which keep them in office by taking the wealth from the politically less powerful and redistributing it to supporters, who maintain or improve influence with other politicians, and who enlist the aid of bureaucrats. These goals are all accomplished in an arena where the prudent citizen-voter must pay a steep price even to be informed about the costs and benefits of policy options. Voters, therefore, remain ignorant of costs while politicians remind them of the alleged benefits. All this suggests a great tragedy for modern democracies: The better a political system represents the narrow private interests of some citizens, the worse it may be at fostering economic progress and safeguarding liberty.

But reforms are possible. Otherwise there would have been no Reagan tax cuts, water marketing would still be a gleam in some economist's eye, we wouldn't be talking about meaningful welfare reform, and there would be no justification for magazines like REASON or pro-market think tanks. The Gingrich reforms lost a public relations battle. Clear constituencies were not identified, informed, and mobilized. Costs of programs were not compared to their benefits in ways the voters understood. Political entrepreneurs opposed to reform, however, effectively mobilized constituencies, framed issues in ways that swayed voters, and separated the benefits of programs from their costs. What reform needs is clear understanding of the dynamics of the process and good political entrepreneurship, not despair.

Randy T. Simmons is professor of political science at Utah State University and co-author of Beyond Politics: Markets, Welfare, and the Failure of Bureaucracy (Westview Press).