When a nation has an economic problem that seems unsolvable, it usually is a sign of an underlying political problem that its citizens have not addressed. The persistent fiscal problems our country faces are prime examples.
The two presidential candidates mention taxes, spending, deficits and debt. Mitt Romney claims he will solve these problems by cutting nonmilitary spending, lowering corporate and individual tax rates and abolishing myriad tax deductions, exclusions and credits. His numbers simply don't add up, and when challenged on this, he doubles down as with his recent assertion that higher-income people will not pay less tax under his plan.
Barack Obama is nearly as imprecise. His administration did put out an 80-page deficit-reduction plan a year ago, but that gathers dust. From the stump, all one hears is the same old broken-record calls for higher taxes on those earning more than $250,000. Meanwhile, his running mate, Joe Biden, goes around promising that there will be no changes to Social Security, absolutely none.
Voters ought to be up in arms. But their acceptance of such patronizing drivel may be because of the fact that neither candidate, if elected, has a chance of getting his ill-defined economic agenda through Congress. This will be true regardless of how congressional races turn out. Continued deadlock is what we should expect.
The core political problem is that the Senate has moved to a de facto set of internal rules under which a supermajority of 60 votes is needed even for resolutions supporting motherhood and apple pie. And the Byzantine system by which individual senators can delay bills and block the confirmation of appointed officials further saps the upper houses productivity.
Tradition is important to the Senate, and from the early 1800s on, its rules have given individual senators considerable latitude.
For nearly two centuries, senators responded by using their right to filibuster bills sparingly. But that has gone by the wayside over the past decade, and the problem has become acute in the past three years. Use of the filibuster has become routine. This tactic has been employed more in the past three years than in the 30 years from 1970 to 2000.
The result has been that with a Democrat in the White House, a slim Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, it is nearly impossible to pass a budget, much less reform entitlement programs or the tax code.
The same will still be true even if Romney wins the presidential race and the Senate flips from a slim Democratic majority to a Republican one. The chance that the Republicans will hold 60 Senate seats after 2012 is virtually nil. And while Democrats might pick up a few seats, there is almost no chance they will win a majority in the House.
All this would not be a problem if there were willingness in both parties to compromise and to cross the aisle. Historically, they did so when important legislation was on the line.
In 1935 and 1965, Republicans fought hard against Social Security and Medicare respectively. But when it came to a vote, many were in favor. In 1947, Democrats fought the Taft-Hartley bill to limit labor unions power to strike. But some Democrats, mostly conservatives from the rural South, voted for it.
Republicans were dead-set against the Marshall Plan of post-war aid to Europe, as were a few Democrats. But Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan courageously rallied enough members of his party so that it squeaked through.
This willingness to compromise and cross party lines continued into the 1990s. Democrats generally opposed legislation to limit welfare benefits. But some ended up voting for the bill, and President Bill Clinton signed it.
The Gramm-Leach-Bliley bill to repeal the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act that separated investment banking from commercial banking was a Republican initiative all three of the listed authors were Republicans. But Robert Rubin, Clintons secretary of the treasury, supported it, as did his successor, Lawrence Summers. When the final votes came, many Democrats were in favor.
That was only 15 years ago, but even such limited bipartisanship would be impossible today.
Moreover, the willingness of congressional leaders of one party to strike deals with a president from the other, as House Speaker Thomas Tip ONeill did with Ronald Reagan, is virtually gone. How has this come to pass and what can be done about it?
On this Ill defer to two respected political scientists, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, whose book Its Even Worse Than It Looks: How The American Constitutional System Collided With the New Extremism examines these questions in depth. Anyone who cares about the direction our economy is going should read the book.
Be warned that the authors assign much more blame to contemporary Republicans than to Democrats.
The fact that Ornstein is a Republican who works for a conservative think tank wont keep him from being branded a RINO (Republican in name only).
That eagerness to read moderates out of the party is prima facie evidence of the problem.
But if you are a Republican who respects current or former Republican congressmen like Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Jim Leach of Iowa, Dick Lugar of Indiana, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina or Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, you need to consider Mann and Ornsteins arguments carefully.
The two propose changes, none of which has any chance of adoption given current circumstances. But their discussion is enlightening.
Regardless who wins in November, expect deadlock to be the rule.
Economist Edward Lotterman teaches and writes in St. Paul, Minn. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.