Washington’s Biggest Problem: Not Agreeing on the Problem

Gridlock rules Washington not just because the parties can’t agree on solutions to our nation’s problems, but because they can’t even agree on what the problems are. Senate Republicans didn’t block Barack Obama’s cap-and-trade bill in 2010 because they favored different policies—say, a carbon tax—for controlling global warming. They blocked it because they didn’t believe that global warming is real, or if it is real that human activity causes it, or if human activity does cause it that there’s much of anything we can do about it that’s worth the price we’d have to pay. GOP lawmakers don’t oppose Obamacare because they prefer a different health care reform policy (House Republicans still haven’t put forth their much-ballyhooed plan to “replace” the law despite voting fifty-six times to repeal it), but because the widespread lack of health insurance among lower-income Americans is simply not, to most conservatives, a first-order issue requiring government intervention.

The same has long been true about income inequality and wage stagnation. For years, conservatives outright denied that U.S. incomes were growing more unequal. After Thomas Piketty and other academics, not to mention the lived experience of the vast majority of Americans, made that denial untenable, conservatives shifted to the position that, even if inequality is growing, any attempt to contain or reverse it would be an unacceptable blow to “job creators.” As recently as the 2014 midterms, it was hard to find a single Republican campaigning for office on the problem of inequality and stagnant incomes.

But all that changed, with stunning speed, two months after the polls closed last November. First, Jeb Bush, as part of his unexpectedly swift entry into the 2016 presidential race, announced that the problem of reduced upward mobility for average Americans would be a centerpiece of his campaign. Soon afterward, during his aborted 2016 test run, Mitt Romney, Mr. 47 Percent himself, gave a talk bemoaning growing inequality and poverty. In short order, John Boehner, Chris Christie, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and Paul Ryan joined them in condemning the lack of wage growth for average Americans.

There was a proximate political reason for this shift. With sights now turned toward 2016, Republicans were confronted, finally, with convincing evidence of robust economic growth under Obama. So they latched on to the one lamentable figure in the data, weak wage growth, as something they could plausibly complain about. So far Republicans have shown no inclination to champion policies to fight inequality that diverge from their abiding, helpful-in-any-circumstance tool kit of tax cuts and credits. But at least both parties, for now, agree on what the major economic problem of the country is. That’s something new, and, potentially, a real step forward.

Recent polling shows that a majority of GOP voters now favor government action on climate change. So maybe that’s another area ready for a similar tectonic shift toward mutual problem recognition. I can think of at least two others.

The first is the rapid decline of marriage among middle- and lower-income Americans. Social scientists have been warning for years that this trend leads to lower family incomes and poorer life chances for children. Yet Democrats, while fighting for gay marriage rights, haven’t had much to say about the plummeting rates of heterosexual marriage. Republicans showed more vigorous interest during the Bush administration, but in recent years have mostly devoted their energies to trying to stop gay marriage. But now that the latter effort has evidently failed, argue the authors of this magazine’s cover story, each side has its own political and ideological reasons to focus anew on the problem.

The second area of possible cross-party agreement is corporate influence in Washington. Democrats have spent decades pushing for restrictions on corporate campaign contributions, which the Supreme Court keeps gutting. Meanwhile Republicans have generally seen K Street power as a feature, not a bug. But what if, instead of trying to reduce the corporate sector’s influence, Congress strengthened its ability to resist that influence by adding to its ranks of expert staff, the kind of people who can understand, and call bullshit on, the industry-funded research that is the coin of the policymaking realm in Washington? Such an agenda might well appeal to today’s Republican lawmakers, argue Lee Drutman and Steven Teles in this issue:

Even small-government conservatives are feeling pressure to do something about the influence of corporate lobbying. Improving congressional capacity is a reform action they can take that would increase their own power, wouldn’t force them to agree with liberal get-the-money-out-of-politics types, and wouldn’t directly cross the corporate lobbying community.

I’m not saying these realignments are inevitable. I am saying they are possible, given the right conditions and leadership. And like the recent GOP shift on inequality, they could happen surprisingly fast.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.