A Congressional Insider on Why the U.S. Political System Is Broke
Mike Lofgren came to Washington to work on Capitol Hill 30 years ago, when Ronald Reagan was rebuilding America’s “hollow military” after its Vietnam hangover, and the Cold War was in its final throes – although we didn’t know it yet. He spent 28 years working for Congress, the last 16 as a senior analyst on the House and Senate budget committees, where he tried to help keep the pistons and crankshafts of national defense, among other things, running smoothly.
His new book — The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted – is a keen but depressing peek behind congressional bunting and cloakroom doors. While he is an equal-opportunity critic of both political parties, his Republican background gives his slaps at the GOP added sting. He chatted with Battleland via email over the weekend:
Why did you write The Party Is Over?
First, let me dispel one potential canard: I am not a “disgruntled former employee.” I enjoyed my day job, which was federal budgeting. And I revered the Founders’ idea of Congress, which is the first institution of government outlined in the Constitution.
But I had become alarmed that my party, the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eisenhower, had ceased to believe in the proper governance of the world’s greatest economic and military power. The party preferred gridlock and discrediting the institutions of government in a perpetual campaign of fake populism.
The GOP’s ransoming the nation’s sovereign credit rating in order to ram through their political agenda was the final straw that made me write the book. Even Ronald Reagan, the present-day Republican icon, had pleaded with Congress in the 1980s to give him a debt limit extension bill without extraneous provisions or gimmicks. The GOP has now become a rigid, ideological cult rather than a traditional, broad-based political party.
Who has enabled this state of affairs?
The enablers are the modern Democratic Party, or most of it. In the early 1990s, after three straight presidential election defeats, the Democratic Leadership Council-types took over the party and oriented it to the needs of Wall Street.
Hence the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the deregulation of derivatives trading on Clinton’s watch – actions which in some measure contributed to the asset bubble and consequent financial meltdown.
In terms of military spending and reckless foreign intervention, their attitude is “me too, but slightly less.” They act in a kind of synergy with the Republicans to exacerbate our problems.
What is the one thing you learned during your Capitol Hill career that outsiders would be surprised to learn?
A lot of politicians don’t want substantive solutions, they want partisan issues.
Example: my former boss, Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a reasonable guy who actually wanted real solutions to our fiscal problems, co-authored a bill with Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) to create a panel to propose long-term deficit reduction.
The panel’s recommendations would get an up-or-down vote in Congress. Everybody liked the idea in the abstract, so it gained many Senate co-sponsorships.
Yet when the Obama administration signaled its support, several Republican senators, including minority leader Mitch McConnell, suddenly withdrew their support. When the bill came to a vote in the Senate to override McConnell’s filibuster, it failed by a small margin.
In other words, it was a good idea until the president of the United States got on board. This is the kind of petty childishness that makes our Congress a laughing stock.
How much, if at all, does home-district pork inflate the defense budget? Not legitimate home-district defense spending, but that layer of fat atop the legitimate defense spending that would be carved away if a computer were drafting a defense budget without taking local politics into account?
Many commentators on military budgets make a lot of noise about congressional “earmarks,” which probably carve out something like single-digit billions within the cost of the budget each year. Certainly, many of those earmarks are egregious and unnecessary. But they are not the root of the problem.
If some congressman adds a $1-million earmark, yes, that may be a problem, but what makes the multiple-hundred billion-dollar wish list of the military services sacrosanct? After all, they are simply trying to jack up their individual budgets.
And in any case, weapon systems proposed by the Pentagon are loaded with special-interest pork: for one thing, the military is careful to franchise subcontracts of weapons to as many congressional districts as possible, thus assuring support on the Hill. That is a very inefficient system.
For a non-military example, look at the production problems of the Boeing 787 airliner: getting the plane’s parts to fit together properly was a problem because in order to get as many “constituents” – meaning countries willing to buy the plane – as possible, Boeing had subcontracted production all over the world. Who knows how many billions in inefficiencies we have to pay because of DOD’s system of political subcontracting?
If politicians are to blame, is each party equally culpable?
The media like to play the false equivalence, “equally culpable” game. This is a subset of the media’s fake objectivity: “Is the earth round or flat? We’ll discuss the controversy after the break!”
I have already called the Democrats enablers, and this is what they are because of their need to cater to corporate donors. It is also a result of their own pusillanimity. But at least they take a stab at governing.
The GOP is all into tearing down the institutions of government (or auctioning them off to corporate contributors – remember Halliburton? The U.S. Army can’t even feed itself anymore, even though its logistics budget is going through the roof).
The Democrats are distinctly sub-mediocre, but they can’t match the kind of lunacy you see from [lawmakers like] a Louie Gohmert, or a Michele Bachmann, or an Allen West, or a Joe Walsh in the GOP. And, no, they are not powerless back-benchers; their faction determines the circumstances under which House majority leader Eric Cantor undercuts the Speaker of the House.
Currently, military spending goes through one set of committees on the Hill, and foreign-affairs spending – the State Department, foreign aid, etc. – goes through another. Is this a problem? If it is, can it ever be solved so long as this dual structure exists?
It certainly leads to overlap and inefficiency. But if it were consolidated in a single committee – which would almost of necessity be the defense committee, simply because of its enormous gravitational pull – how would the oversight be improved?
The House and Senate defense committees are already in the tank for the contractors and their campaign contributions. Do you think they would give increased scrutiny to Foreign Military Sales, which are currently handled by the foreign affairs committees? Separation of powers is inherent in the system that Madison and the other Founders created, and I would be leery of changing that convention.
How potent a weapon is it on Capitol Hill to be labeled as “soft on defense”?
That was the slogan that wounded the Democrats in 1972 – never mind that in World War II, McGovern had been a B-24 pilot who braved enemy flak and won the Distinguished Flying Cross, while Nixon was a bureaucrat at the Office of Price Administration who later won poker games in a Navy supply outfit that was well away from combat.
Somehow, the Democrats have been traumatized ever since, although they shouldn’t be: a May 2012 survey by the Stimson Center, the Program for Public Consultation, and the Center for Public Integrity found that 76% of the public favored cutting military spending.
In any case, why does “strong on defense” equate with throwing money at contractors? And why does “strong on defense” equate with reckless military misadventure that kills and maims our young people and drains our treasury? After nearly a dozen years of war, the public mood is changing; the Democrats just haven’t caught up with it, while the GOP is still living out its chickenhawk fantasies.
If you were God and could change one thing about how the nation defends itself, what would it be?
We need to dump forthwith the silly notion of American Exceptionalism: that the country is somehow exempt from the laws of physics, not to mention the law of unintended consequences.
This is what leads to our reckless interventionism. No, we are not smart enough to solve the four-millennia old problems of the Middle East with our healing touch (albeit at the barrel of a gun).
Including debt service, our misadventure in Iraq cost us $1 trillion, and what did we get from it? Zip, nada, zilch.
Our country has a $15 trillion debt, a failing infrastructure, and economic competitiveness problems.
Squandering our resources by pursuing the illusion of global military hegemony will simply send us down the dusty and corpse-strewn road of the Spanish Empire of Philip II, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union.
Our real work is at home: peace, reform, and reconstruction.