REACTIONS: Washington is Not Broken Enough

Yuval Levin has an excellent short piece over at National Review today.  (In fact, National Review had a particularly good Monday this week overall; I also recommend the editorial defense of the First Amendment and John Fund’s wonkish breakdown of Orrin Hatch’s primary race.)  I’m on a bit of a Levin kick after he explained the “hipster/bureaucrat” complex at the heart of liberalism in this month’s First Things.  Which reminds me: “Hipster/Bureaucrat Complex,” does not only sound like feminism’s beloved “Madonna-whore dichotomy.”  It is also a great band name.

Now that you know everything I read this weekend, here’s the piece I’m actually calling out [ellipses omitted]:

The idea that our system is paralyzed by disagreement is very common, especially on the left. But it has very little to do with the crisis of governance we actually face.  In the last decade, we have seen the enactment of, among other things, a large tax reform (the Bush tax cuts), a large education reform, a huge reorganization of our domestic security agencies, a reform of corporate governance (Sarbanes-Oxley), a new Medicare benefit, a massive response to the financial crisis (including several stimulus bills, an unprecedented bank rescue, a bailout of auto companies, and more, crossing two administrations of different parties), a huge health-care reform, a huge financial-regulation reform, and a budget deal with 10-year sequestration spending caps. That is a very active period of federal legislation–certainly more active than the prior decade or the one before that. It’s true that much of what Friedman wants to see has not been enacted, but that’s because it’s too foolish even for Congress to do.

The fact is that the legacy of the Great Society, especially but not exclusively in the form of the two health-care entitlements of the Great Society, Medicare and Medicaid, now threatens the fiscal future of the government and therefore the economic future of the country. The design of those two entitlement programs was not well thought out in the mid-60s, and in more recent times has been a primary driver of the inflation of health costs that is at the core of both the health-care financing crisis and the government’s fiscal woes. It is far worse than the usual kind of legislative screwup. Medicare and Medicaid, structured as they are, are just the kinds of “bad laws” passed “through haste, inadvertence, or design” that Alexander Hamilton warned against in Federalist 73, and thought the constitutional system’s various restraints would protect us against. The elite governing consensus of the mid-60s represented a failure of those constraints that resulted in a number of costly errors. It was that period, not our own time, that marked a breakdown of our constitutional system.

Full article.

COMMENT: In the sea of Facebook status updates complaining about how bad Congress is at “coming together” and “getting things done,” I’ve been that one guy praising both sides of the aisle.  Both sides should be putting their feet down and preventing the advance of the opposite party’s agenda.  Both parties really believe the other party’s legislation du jour is going to cost too much, have unintended side effects, and make things worse for the country.  For them to acquiesce for the sake of a soundbite would be a betrayal of their oath and their conscience.  More importantly, the dissenters are almost always right.

The problem with Washington is not that the two parties are unwilling to get together and push through compromise legislation.  It’s that, when push comes to shove, they are all too willing to push and shove and finagle and compromise until we end up with terrible omnibus legislation absolutely nobody likes.  They do this partly because they see all social problems as requiring the “urgent” intervention of the U.S. federal government and partly because, right and left, they all secretly wish they were members of the great, decisive liberal Congresses of the ’60s rather than, say, the deeply divided and highly effective Congresses of the ’80s and ’90s.  Relatively little major legislation was enacted during Newt Gingrich’s control of the house, but what little ran the Gingrich-Clinton gamut was (for the most part) broadly effective and widely popular: tax cuts, welfare reform, balanced budgets, a federal marriage definition, the Family Medical Leave Act, Gramm-Leach, and a host of cybersecurity and commerce laws dealing with the emergent Internet.  It took years of work to get (for example) welfare reform into a package that the whole nation embraced (liberals albeit grudgingly), but the effort has paid substantial dividends, has it not?

Contrast with the Affordable Care Act, which barely survived passage, despite historically overwhelming Democratic control of Washington and a filibuster-proof Senate majority.  It started out unpopular and has only lost ground since.  It has now mired the nation in a confusion of regulations, the Department of Health and Human Service’s war against the liberties of Catholics, and now faces summary execution before the Supreme Court because it isn’t constitutional.  Obamacare is the grossest example of a series of legislative dysfunctions, all of which came about because legislators’ desire to put a “major legislation” chit in their scrapbooks outweighed both their heartfelt ideological hatred of compromise and their Hamiltonian caution about relying too heavily on one’s own faction.  If either of those senses had been functioning properly in our legislators, they couldn’t have passed Medicare Part D — and we would be better off for it.

Imagine if, instead of Obamacare, Congress had passed a bill that did three things:

(1) require insurers to cover dependents to age 26,

(2) provide some funding (properly offset by spending cuts elsewhere) to close the Medicare doughnut hole, and

(3) require states receiving Medicare funds to use some of that money to set up high-risk insurance pools for people who can’t get coverage because of pre-existing conditions.  These pools are broadly popular: the Obama administration is using them as a stopgap measure until the (wildly unpopular) insurance mandate kicks in in 2014, and the McCain campaign proposed high-risk pools as his permanent solution to the problem, not a stopgap.

A small, relatively inexpensive bill, built on three very popular ideas, which would have fixed some problems in our health care system without fundamentally transforming it — or making taxpayers pay for abortions! Wouldn’t everyone be happier right now if we’d done that?  President Obama might even have a governing majority right now.

Read the whole Levin piece.  It’s pretty good.

In the meantime, as long as I’m riling up conventional wisdom, I may as well get started on my piece about why centrists are destroying America.

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