Congress will return from its summer recess next week to another record low in approval ratings. Blaming Congress for the dysfunction in Washington, however, lets off the hook another culprit: us.
According to the most recent Gallup poll, just 14 percent of Americans hold a favorable rating of Congress. Eighty-one percent disapprove. If it were a product, Congress would be discontinued. But Congress is a product of the people. We chose the lawmakers we claim to despise for their unwillingness to compromise and preference for making speeches in empty chambers rather than passing legislation.
Whose fault, though, is it, really? Not all theirs. What Americans claim to want in principle we reject when it comes to details.
It’s accurate to blame the parties for some of the tribalism in the House of Representatives. Nate Silver, who wrote the FiveThirtyEight blog for The New York Times, concluded last December that since 1992 the number of “swing,” or competitive House districts had decreased from 103 in 1992 to 35 last year.
That 20-year span takes in three congressional redistrictings. Two decades ago also marked the introduction of increasingly sophisticated technology that enables the ruling party in a state legislature to draw political maps with demographic precision, maximizing the influence of its voters and minimizing those of the minority party. In Florida, the Republicans have been especially masterful at cramming Democrats into a few districts and spreading Republicans through many districts.
Safer districts are more partisan districts. Whatever national polls may say on a big issue — immigration reform, the deficit and the debt, gun control — what matters to the lawmaker is what the district thinks. The top priority of every House member and senator is reelection. What plays at home will be the lawmaker’s position. As in:
Every objective, credible study concludes that Medicare needs significant changes to avoid insolvency. Though a payroll tax helps to finance the program and premiums paid by some beneficiaries cover a bit more, general revenue accounted for roughly half of Medicare’s cost in 2010, according to the Tax Policy Center.
Medicare costs figure to explode as more Baby Boomers retire. The first wave turned 65 in 2011, and the last boomers won’t hit that age until 2029. The eligibility age will have to rise, as the age for full Social Security benefits is rising. Those who can afford to pay more will have to pay more.
Social Security is less of a problem, but also needs changes to avoid insolvency. One idea is to use a different Consumer Price Index to calculate annual-cost-of-living adjustments. The new formula would mean smaller adjustments.
Those would be tough choices. But fixing the nation’s finances involves nothing but tough choices. Reps. Lois Frankel and Ted Deutch, Democrats who represent Palm Beach County-based districts with disproportionately high numbers of older residents, aren’t hearing calls for self-sacrifice from constituents. So Rep. Deutch can get away with calling only to lift the limit on income covered by the Social Security payroll tax. He thus would ask more of younger people paying the tax and nothing of those collecting the benefits.
Similarly, Rep. Frankel does not favor “cutting benefits” — it wouldn’t really be a cut — and “would be open to raising the payroll tax cap…” Rather than turn Medicare “into a means-tested program…A better approach is to continue aggressive action against waste, fraud, and abuse and implement the Affordable Care Act that has numerous cost-reducing strategies.”
The only competitive district in this area is District 18, which Democrat Patrick Murphy represents. Covering northern Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, it is 36 percent Democratic, 38 percent Republican and 26 percent independent. Not surprisingly, his chief of staff says Mr. Murphy still is seeking the so-called “grand bargain” — or, he says, “at least a baby grand” — in which entitlements and taxes are on the table and both sides give more than a little.
Republicans are as unreasonable on taxes as Democrats are on entitlements, also against all reason. They argue that raising taxes kills the economy. Yet Congress raised taxes in 1990 and 1993, before and during the longest peacetime economic expansion in our history.
How about just “tax reform?” Is the public stepping up? During the recess, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., toured the country touting tax reform. They asked one woman which tax exemptions she favored eliminating. All of them, she said, except those that help her. The combined cost to the treasury of all tax exemptions is roughly $3.5 trillion, or about five times what this year’s budget deficit will be.
Congress won’t compromise because we tell lawmakers not to compromise. Congress won’t make hard choices because most Americans won’t. If we rated the public based on willingness to sacrifice and unselfishness, we probably would come out somewhere around 14 percent.