Symptom of a broken system (1/1/2013)

The fiscal cliff results from two factors that continue to plague Congress — extremism and careerism, writes David Adler.

The “fiscal cliff,” by now the most recognizable metaphor in American politics, symbolizes the current spate of troubles that plague Congress and account for its single-digit approval rating. Citizens on both sides of the aisle, including prominent scholars, are increasingly driven to describing our system as “broken.”

It is difficult to puzzle out this sad state of affairs, and to explain, exactly, why our nation’s elected representatives have brought us to the precipice, but any serious explanation for this complex situation surely will include the afflictions of ideological extremism and careerism that have come to characterize Congress. Some members suffer from both curses; others by just one. They may be related to one another, but don’t necessarily share a kinship. In either case, the results spell trouble for America.

The problem of extremism and zealotry are hardly new political fashions, though many observers trace growing intolerance and a reluctance to compromise to the mid-1990s, when leading members of both parties of Congress expressed their frustration and despair and sought refuge from the arrogance of political certitude in retirement. The late Sen. James McClure, an iconic figure for Idaho’s Republicans, explained to me a few years ago that he retired from the Senate because ideological extremism had gripped the Senate and made compromise all but impossible. Though deeply conservative, McClure exhibited a pragmatic ability to seek compromise on the premise that half a loaf was better than none. Too few of his colleagues shared his values and he returned to the Gem State.

Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., a justly celebrated politician for his commitment to compromise as a means of avoiding the fiscal cliff, as reflected in his co-authorship of Simpson-Bowles, tells the same story. His lament that congressional colleagues were committed to their ideological principles rather than finding common policy grounds that would generate some progress on the challenges confronting our country, compelled his to return to Wyoming.

The Senate, once described as the world’s greatest deliberative assembly, has yielded the floor to ideological extremism and partisanship.

The fiscal cliff is attributable as well to the problem of careerism. For many years, it has been common for academics in universities to teach that many, though not all, members of Congress are primarily interested in re-election. It follows, as a simple calculus, that those members will assume policy positions, cast votes and engage in activities that will serve their career interests, and avoid those activities that will endanger their return to Washington. This path may lead to longevity in Washington, but offers nothing in the way of leadership.

As we turn the calendar to a new year, it is incumbent upon the citizenry to ask itself: What are the remedies for our dilemma?

Adler is the Cecil Andrus Professor of Public Affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as Director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.