With the release of US President Barack Obama’s budget, Washington has once again descended into partisan squabbling. There is in the US today pervasive concern about the basic functioning of our democracy. The US Congress is viewed less favorably than ever before in the history of public opinion-polling. Revulsion at political figures unable to reach agreement on measures that substantially reduce prospective budget deficits is widespread. Pundits and politicians alike condemn gridlock, while angry movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party emerge on both sides of the political spectrum, and partisanship seems to become ever more pervasive.
All this comes at a time of great challenge. Profound changes, as emerging economies led by China converge toward the West, will redefine the global order. Beyond the current economic downturn, which is surely the most serious since the Great Depression, lies the even more serious challenge of the rise of technologies that may well raise average productivity, but displace large numbers of workers. Public debt is running up in a way that is without precedent except in times of all-out war. And a combination of the share of the population that is aged and the rising relative price of public services, such as healthcare and education, pressures future budgets.
Anyone who has worked in a political position in Washington has had ample experience with great frustration. Almost everyone involved with public policy feels, as I do, that there is much that is essential yet infeasible in the current political environment. Yet context is important. Concerns about gridlock are a near-constant in US political history and in important respects reflect desirable checks and balances; much more progress is occurring in key sectors than is usually acknowledged; and US decisionmaking, for all its flaws, stands up well in global comparison.
It is a commonplace that the missing center makes political compromise impossible. Many yearn for a return to what they imagine as an earlier era when centrists in both parties had overlapping opinions and negotiated bipartisan compromises that moved the country forward.
Yet fears about the functioning of our government like those expressed today have been recurring features of the political landscape since Patrick Henry’s 1791 assertion that the spirit of the revolution had been lost. It is sobering to consider the degree of concern about paralysis that gripped Washington during the early 1960s, when the prevailing diagnosis was that a lack of cohesive and responsible parties precluded the clear electoral verdicts necessary for decisive action.
While there was a flurry of legislation passed in the 1964-1966 period after a Democratic landslide, what followed were the cleavages associated with Vietnam and then Watergate, all leading to then-US president Jimmy Carter’s famous declaration of a crisis of the national spirit. Whatever the view today, there was hardly high rapport in Washington during the term of former US president Ronald Reagan. Former US president Bill Clinton worked hard to establish rapport and compromise with a Congress controlled by the opposition, only to be impeached by the House of Representatives after a bitter struggle.
Intense division and slow change have been the norms rather than the exceptions. While often frustrating, this has not always been a bad thing. Probably there were too few — not too many — checks and balances as the US entered the Vietnam and Iraq wars. By my lights and that of many others, there should have been more checks and balances on the huge tax cuts of 1981, 2001 and 2003, or on unpaid-for entitlement expansions at any number of junctures.
Most experts would agree that it is a good thing that politics thwarted the effort to establish a guaranteed annual income in the late 1960s and early 1970s, or the effort to put in place what would today be called a single-payer healthcare system in the 1970s.
The great mistake of the gridlock theorists is to suppose that all progress comes from legislation and that more legislation consistently represents more progress. While these are seen as years of gridlock, consider what has happened in the past five years. The US moved faster to contain a systemic financial crisis than any country facing such a crisis has moved in the last generation. Through all the fractiousness, enough change has taken place that without further policy action, the debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to decline for the next five years. Beyond that the outlook depends largely on healthcare costs, but growth there has slowed to the rate of GDP growth for three years now — the first such slowdown in nearly half a century. At last, universal healthcare is in sight.
Within a decade, it is likely that the US will no longer be a net importer of fossil fuels. Financial regulation is not in a fully satisfactory place, but has received its most substantial overhaul in 75 years. Most public schools and those who teach in them are for the first time evaluated on objective metrics of student performance. The place of gays in American life has been profoundly altered with their marriage coming to be widely accepted.
No remotely comparable list can be put forth for Japan or Western Europe. Yes, change comes rapidly to several of the authoritarian societies of Asia. However, it may not endure and may not always be for the better. Anyone prone to pessimism would do well to ponder the alarm with which the US viewed the Soviet Union after Sputnik, or Japan in the early 1990s. It is the capacity for self-denying prophecy of doom that is one of the US’ greatest strengths.
None of this is to say that we do not face huge challenges. The challenges, though, are less of getting to agreement where the answer is clear than of finding solutions to problems, like rising inequality or global climate change, where the path is uncertain. That is not a problem of gridlock — it is a problem of vision.
Lawrence Summers is the Charles W. Eliot university professor at Harvard University and a former US secretary of the Treasury. Any views and opinions expressed are his own.