international analysis and commentary

Washington’s inherent gridlock, a conversation with Bill Schneider


Though there are signs that a compromise may be on the horizon, it is remarkable how the American spirit of teamwork has tragically failed in Washington as the US government deadlock threatened to put the whole world’s economy at risk. According to Bill Schneider, a leading US political analyst, Distinguished Senior Fellow and Resident Scholar at Third Way and former CNN senior political analyst, the real problem is that the battle is over principle, rather than money and that the US framework simply does not work. During the Aspen Transatlantic Dialogue, held in Venice on October 4-5, Mr. Schneider shared his thoughts with us on the current debt crisis in Washington.

Regarding the government shutdown in the United States, what needs to be done to end it and why is this happening?

To end the shutdown all the Speaker of the House of Representatives needs to do is let the House vote on a budget. It would pass in 30 minutes. All 200 House Democrats would vote to keep the government open as would about 50 Republicans – an easy majority. But no, the Speaker and other Republican leaders refuse to do that because they are hostages to their own party’s more aggressive conservatives. Those conservatives number about 50 out of 232 House Republicans and they are threatening to lead an insurrection against the party leadership if they dare to allow a vote. Other Republican members are terrified that they will face a tough primary challenge from the right if they do not go along with the Tea Party. So, what we now have is minority government. Hard-line conservatives are blocking majority rule so they can get their way. They insist they are taking a stand on principle. That principle, according to them, is that the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, is an unconstitutional expansion of government power and that Barack Obama is not a legitimate president. They believe this despite the fact that the Supreme Court ruled back in June that the healthcare plan is constitutional and despite the fact that voters re-elected President Obama last year.

What do Republicans aim to accomplish with this maneuver?

A Democrat recently reminded her Senate colleagues that the issue here is money. It’s the federal budget, not political or ideological viewpoints. Actually Republicans insist that it is values and ideology. They call it a confrontation over core principles. A budget is supposed to be a fight over interests. Interests can be negotiated and compromised. You can’t make deals if it is a fight over values, which is what conservatives claim this is. Values are about right and wrong. There isn’t any room for compromise. Meanwhile mainstream Republicans are getting anxious about facing a backlash at the polls next year. I think they have a lot of reason for worry. Far from rallying to the anti-Obamacare cause, voters are expressing anger and disgust with Congress.

Would you say the real problem here is in the system itself?

The US system of government is designed to be unworkable and it works – or does not work – exactly the way it was designed. It was designed by men (they were all men) 225 years ago who hated strong government. We have a system – checks and balances, separation of powers, federalism – that invites gridlock, unlike a parliamentary system. In the United Kingdom, for instance, gridlock is unconstitutional. Her majesty’s government must be carried on. That is a constitutional principle. We have no such principle in the United States. We simply live with gridlock year after year. Because of this particular unworkability of our framework, we are vulnerable to what is happening right now.

In fact, US government functions only in a crisis. That is how our system works. That is why our politicians are forever going around the country declaring a crisis. We’ve had an environmental crisis, and education crisis, a real financial crisis. Or they declare a war on something. We’ve had a war on drugs, a war on crime and a war on terror.  We once declared war on poverty (“Poverty won,” the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan quipped).

What a crisis creates is public urgency. Only when there is public urgency can our government function. My job has been for many decades to determine when the urgency is real and when the urgency is not real. When it is real, our system of government works extremely well. When it is not real, nothing can get done. That is the explanation for why we are in such a mess in the United States. We have for decades endured a sequence of manufactured crises, crises that are not real. It is a dangerous way to live.

Is there any way to resolve the long-term debt crisis in the United States?

Yes, the answer was given by President Ronald Reagan. He said in 1985, “There are some who say that growth initiatives must await final action on deficit reductions. Well, the best way to reduce deficits is through economic growth.” The only way we can solve our debt problem is the way we did from 1997 to 2001 when the US had a budget surplus for four years (the “dot-com bubble”).

That is how we’ve always solved the deficit problem in the past. Achieving growth, of course, is the central issue for all economies, but in the US it is the only possible way to solve the debt problem.