Doug Elmendorf testified before Congress dozens of times while director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2009 to earlier this year. What did he learn?
“I’m afraid that Congress does look just as dysfunctional up close as it does from afar,” he says in the video above. “The whole is a lot less than the sum of the parts.” (The video is part of an explanatory series Yahoo Finance is presenting in conjunction with the Brookings Institution, where Elmendorf is now a visiting fellow.)
It’s axiomatic by now that Congress is one of the least productive organizations in America, an overpaid group of often ineffective politicians who might be comical if they weren’t responsible for much of the nation’s important business. Just 14% of Americans says they approve of the job Congress is doing, and that’s a peak: Two years ago it was a measly 9%.
As a measure of Congress’s incompetence: It will be big news this week if the legislature simply does its job, and approves a spending bill allowing the government to function for the next 10 months or so. House and Senate leaders will congratulate themselves for working long hours and getting to the finish line. These are the only people in America who hold news conferences to celebrate a job poorly done and way overdue.
Anyway, Elmendorf explains the one simple reason Congress seems so dysfunctional: “The members are not working together in the way our system requires, he says. “We have too many members of Congress now who are unwilling to compromise, unwilling to take half a loaf over none.”
The bigger question, of course, is why they’re unwilling to compromise. Deepening red-blue divisions have something to do with it, as do rogue groups like the Tea Party that have just enough influence to gum up the works. Yet it’s also true that voters supposedly fed up with Congress don’t do much to fix things; the reelection rate for incumbents is well above 90%.
Does it really matter whether Congress gets anything done? Absolutely. Most of the big ideas in the 2016 presidential campaign – tax reform, new immigration laws, healthcare improvements – require Congress to pass laws. And the automatic spending on entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security will rise to unsustainable levels that will bankrupt the country if Congress can’t figure out solutions. By then, half a loaf will look like a feast.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.