GUEST COMMENTARY: Deficits, debts and political management

2011-08-06T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Deficits, debts and political managementBy Arthur I. Cyr
August 06, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Insights of earlier leaders will help us understand why the debt and deficit reduction merry-go-round in Washington has been especially unnerving recently.

• "The kind of fellow who fouls up a two-car funeral."

President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose favored expression is politely paraphrased here, dominated the U.S. Senate for years and the executive branch for a time.

Johnson was referring to a person everyone encounters: the staff aide who aggressively asserts authority, disseminates directives and pushes people around. In reality, responsibility rests with the boss, not the insecure officious underling. Management expert Peter Drucker devotes explicit attention to this difficult challenge to executive effectiveness.

In today's Washington, two-car funeral types have taken over actual responsibility and power. New Tea Party members of the House of Representatives lecture stridently, listen very little, know the truth and force their divine guidance on the rest of us, on their terms.

Fundamental long-term structural changes account for this profound systemic shift. The vast majority of House seats are now safe for one or the other of the major parties. Primary elections have become pervasive.

Primaries were supposed to make our system more open and democratic following the political chaos and violence of 1968. However, usually relatively few people actually vote in primaries, which greatly increases the influence of ideologically driven activists.

LBJ's generation of politicians reconciled an expanding array of interest groups, primarily though not exclusively economic, as they moved up the ladder. Today, you can get to the top, at least for a time, listening mainly to your own voice.

• "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking real money."

Attributed to Illinois Republican Senator Everett Dirksen, this now-classic reference is to the big, big spending of Washington. People often ascribe the start of our vastly expanded government to FDR and the New Deal. In fact, the profound shift began during the Civil War.

When new President Abraham Lincoln arrived in Washington D.C., the federal government literally had no more than a few hundred thousand dollars on hand. By the end of his administration, national government spending and debt had crossed the $1 billion mark. The Transcontinental Railroad, initiated by that extraordinary leader, symbolized the new national commitment to gigantic capital projects.

Today's politicians talk turkey in terms of trillions of dollars, not billions.

Reflecting this unprecedented collective level of resources, and resulting indiscipline, there is a scribbled on the-back-of-the-envelope quality to current interchange. President Barack Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and others discuss gigantic dollar amounts casually, with little evidence of disciplined preparation essential to insightful policy. Rep. Paul Ryan is one notable exception.

A blue-ribbon commission has submitted a detailed report on debt reduction. The Office of Management and Budget is equipped to handle thorough budget analysis and debate. Yet Obama gives little indication of any serious interest in details of policy.

Likewise in the Congress, despite substantial staff resources compared with most other economically advanced democracies, there is a marked absence of continuing, specific, systematic policy analysis. The Congressional Budget Office operates as an afterthought to campaigning.

• "The courage to be patient."

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, quoted here, regularly met informally with congressional leaders. President Ronald Reagan emulated the practice. They made a point of involving both parties.

Sam Rayburn of Texas was ecumenical as House Speaker from the 1940s into the 1960s, and remained remarkably influential.

Current Washington leaders should go and do likewise.


Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of ‘After the Cold War.' Contact him at The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.

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