Deficits, debts and political management

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Arthur I. Cyr
Monday, August 8, 2011

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

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

Sen. and 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 referred to someone everyone encounters: the aggressive aide who disseminates directives and pushes people around. In reality, responsibility rests with the boss, not the underling.

In today’s Washington, two-car funeral types have taken over actual responsibility. New tea party members of the House of Representatives lecture stridently, listen very little and force their divine guidance on the rest of us.

Fundamental long-term structural changes account for this. 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 after the chaos of 1968. However, relatively few people vote in primaries, which increases the influence of ideologically driven activists.

LBJ’s generation of politicians reconciled a complex array of interest groups as they moved up the ladder. Today, you can get to the top listening mainly to your own voice.

--“A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking real money.’

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

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

Reflecting this unprecedented collective level of resources, 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. Rep. Paul Ryan of Janesville 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, 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 of both parties. President Ronald Reagan emulated the practice.

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 in Kenosha. Readers can contact him at acyr@carthage.edu.

Last updated: 6:11 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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