During most of the 18th century, the British and Russians were engaged in a head-to-head rivalry to dominate Central Asia. Interestingly, a good deal of this centered on Afghanistan, as the British feared that Russia expansion threatened their position in India and Afghanistan was seen as a key staging point. The political and military actions that were carried out by both sides came to be known as “the great game.”
Perhaps that was the first time that political maneuvers were tagged with the term. But today, politics has become perhaps the biggest game of all — affecting more people than soccer, basketball, football and baseball combined — mostly people who aren’t even players. And the most important arena in the world is the Congress of the United States.
Something strange seems to happen to people when they are elected to Congress, even if they have the best of intentions. Their campaigns focus on political issues, enumerating the programs they will support and tearing down the ideas and records of their opponents.
But then something happens; some call it “Potomac Fever,” named after the Potomac River which flows so majestically by. In a short time they become part of the game, a game with rigid rules and serious penalties for non-conformity.
It’s not the waters of the Potomac that are to blame. A newly elected member of Congress realizes the day he or she is declared victor is the first day of the re-election campaign. Getting re-elected takes money which generally flows through party lines.
So supporting the party is key to long-term survival. But survival is meaningless without “power.” Power comes from being appointed to the right committees and “working one’s way up the ladder,” all of which requires conformity to and support of the ideological positions of those in power. It is the rare maverick who bucks the system, recognizing that his/her term in Congress is likely to be short and unproductive.
The net result is that the best of intentions seem to be lost and replaced, these days, by a zero-sum game: anything that benefits you is to my detriment and vice versa. There seems to be little appreciation of the need to think of the nation’s long term needs first. The game is much more immediate and assuring that one plays by the “rules” dominates behavior. Compromise is seen as weakness. Winning is everything.
Currently, the nation is in the throes of what could be a calamitous situation — a national debt ceiling that, in theory, could bring government to its knees in a few days and affect the nation’s financial standing with both foreign and domestic borrowers. The Democrats want to hold the line on entitlement programs which the Republicans want to cut. The Republicans want to hold the line on taxes while the Democrats see areas for reduction. And so it goes, on and on.
And now we have a new twist to the game plan. Substantial factions within each party seem to be intransigent to allowing any compromise by their designated leaders. If that isn’t the definition of “disfunctionality,” I wonder what is.
The problem has much less to do with the debt than with the impact that Congress is having on the nation. We are in the midst of a protracted period of economic hardship for many. We are also a consumer-based economy — about 70 percent of our economy is based on consumer actions. When people feel positive, they buy. When they buy, companies add employees and build inventory in an upward spiral. Consumer confidence is key and that requires a solid belief that the government is in good hands.
I am convinced that this problem will be resolved, probably in the last hours before the absolute deadline kicks in. That’s also part of the game. This way, no one can be criticized too heavily for giving in. At this stage, compromises become “patriotic” gestures. The drama is enormous … but it is also what the public seems to want.
I wonder what it would be like if several months ago, Congress engaged in meaningful dialog, examining possible trade-offs and making compromises.
Frankly, a good bit of the problem could be alleviated by establishing programs to target waste and inefficiency. Pet programs of various members of Congress could have been highlighted (fat chance) so public light could be shed on the cost/benefit analysis to the nation (rather than to re-election campaigns) and these could also become the objects for trade-offs.
The whole question of whether or not we need a debt ceiling — and what an appropriate debt level might be — could be discussed. [For example, Gross Domestic Product in 2010 was $14.7 trillion. The national debt level is now in excess of $14 trillion. Is that too much? Last year per capita income in the U.S was about $39,000. In August 2010, the Federal Reserve reported average per capita household debt of approximately $50,000. Are there parallels here? ]
To continue the dream, wouldn’t it be nice if, with a positive process taking place, a compromise was announced several weeks in advance. That might do more to stimulate the economy than any financial stimulus programs the government might provide.
We must get Congress away from playing games and focused more on the good of the nation. There will always be a diversity of viewpoints — but most families, small groups and communities learn to live with them — some productively. Unless and until we demand more from Congress, we can probably expect no better than we are getting. The system has to change – campaign finance reform, the seniority system, term limits, the ability of self interest groups to unduly influence legislation – all of this should be part of the discussion. But like the fox guarding the chicken coop, reform is not likely to come from within. Most major reform that has been proposed has either been defeated or resulted in token legislation that maintained the status quo.
Again, the current “crisis” will be resolved. But the long term crisis will continue unless we, the people, get more involved. It is the only way to realize Lincoln’s characterization of a “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Arizona and Georgia. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Week. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.