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Amitai Etzioni Headshot

No Gridlock for the Right Wing

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DEBT CEILING DEAL

Predicting political developments is a treacherous business. Social scientists like me turn out to be wrong all too often. Nevertheless, I will predict the outcome of the hectic negotiations on raising the debt limits -- and show why this is not much of a boast.

I predict that a deal will be reached and that it will focus on deficit reduction, at a time when the economy is limping and many economists hold that the government ought to spend more, not less. (I would add that Congress should commit itself irrevocably to deficit cuts -- to be activated once unemployment falls below 7 percent.)

Moreover, the deal will be at least two-thirds, more likely 80%, "Republican" and only the rest "Democratic." I mean the deal will largely reflect the Republican demand that government spending be cut -- and that it will contain only few revenue-raising features, which the Democrats favor.

Furthermore, the revenue-raising features will include few or no tax increases and will mainly take the form of reducing "tax expenditures" such as cutting subsidies, for instance to ethanol, and closing some tax loopholes.

Finally, the easiest and most distressing prediction of them all. Even if the deal pushes the economy into a second-dip recession, the Federal Reserve will not come to the rescue by restarting its economy-stimulating program (known as quantitative easing).

How can this be, given that the Democrats have a majority in the Senate (considered to be a heavier hitter than the House) and the president is a Democrat, while the Republicans have a majority only in the House? Why does it take very little clairvoyance to make these predictions?

Because contrary to the conventional wisdom, Washington is not gridlocked, but is dominated by what ought to be called the conservative party, the party that favors the kind of deal I just outlined. The conservative party (or block) draws on the fact that in the U.S. Congress, unlike many legislatures in other democracies, elected officials do not have to vote their party line. As a result, while practically all Republicans in the House and Senate support most conservative causes, a fair number Democrats vote conservatively as well. In contrast, what ought to be called the liberal party has next to no Republican members and encompasses only part of the Democratic elected representatives. Theirs is a minority party.

But what about the president? Cannot he change the course and come up with a less conservative deal? Part of the answer lies in the president's strong preference for consensus building. Part of the answer lies in the electorate. According to a December 2010 Gallup Poll, it includes two conservative voters for every liberal one. Hence, these days, conservatives usually get their way, and the debt ceiling increase deal will be no exception.

Those who write about gridlock or paralysis in Washington tend to forget that the Supreme Court is also in D.C. Far from deadlocked, it has a 5-to-4 conservative majority on many issues.

And then there is the Federal Reserve. Although theoretically it is an independent institution, its officials realize if they veer too far from the political majority, their cherished independence will be undermined. Conservative criticism of the Fed, especially its stimulus program and calls from the Tea Party to close the Fed down or at least audit it, got the Fed's attention. Hence one can readily predict that for now, unless the economy goes into a sharp nosedive, the Fed will stand down.

If these readings of the Washington tea leaves are correct, one can even predict the outcome of the 2012 elections. The next president may be a Republican or a Democrat, but he or she will not be a liberal, not even a moderate.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and the author of New Common Ground (Potomac Books, 2009).