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Harry Kresky Headshot

America's Other Deficit

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In the wake of the debt ceiling debate, some are saying that "the gulf between the political parties" has called into question the government's ability to manage its finances, and raising questions concerning the "effectiveness, stability and predictability of American policy making and political institutions."

No, I'm not quoting Jackie Salit, President of IndependentVoting.org. These statements were made in the report of Standard and Poor's that reduced America's credit rating from AAA to AA+, the first time in the investment rating service's history that the U.S. did not receive the highest rating. (Salit would have added a statement about the even wider gulf between the American people and the parties.)

Republican presidential candidates blamed President Obama for the downgrade. In so doing they demonstrated the very hyper partisanship that so concerned the S&P analysts. On ABC's This Week, sniping continued between Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Martin O'Malley, chair of the Democratic Governor's Association. Even though they have very different positions, to most viewers, they sound pretty much the same--namely, always and only, seeking partisan advantage.

Few would disagree that the debt ceiling negotiations were a case study in subordinating the national interests to partisan concerns, in particular to gaining advantage in the 2012 Presidential election. And the result was bad economic policy. The jobs crisis was put on the back burner, and raising the debt ceiling, something that has been done so regularly that it is barely noticed, was taken hostage by Tea Party ideologues who see reducing the national debt as the country's number one priority.

Most responsible economists would argue that in a time of economic contraction and recession, budget cutting is not the answer. They remind us how Herbert Hoover's effort to cut spending and balance the budget at the onset of the Great Depression only made matters worse. They prescribe short term deficit spending (more stimulus) and long term debt reduction. Here again partisan politics interceded, and the Republican majority in the House made clear that it would not vote to support another stimulus package.

That is not to suggest that the growing national debt can be ignored. Federal debt alone exceeds $14 trillion and projections point to a $1.1 trillion deficit in 2011. It is fair to ask how long people and governments will continue to lend money to Uncle Sam under these circumstances. I'll leave that question to the economist and to the creditors.

What I do know is that imploring party politicians to act like statesmen does not work. Nor have efforts to find the "rational center" between the partisans. Ask the "No Labels" folks who mobilized their following to urge Congress to do just that.

Partisanship is not a psychological illness. It is imbedded in the very structure of our political system. When times are good and the economy is growing, short term compromise (if not long term planning) can be achieved. When they are not, the ability of the political system to navigate tricky waters becomes less and less stable, more and more partisan.

As any good engineer will tell you, a structural problem requires a structural solution. And there are some that would make a difference. How about open primaries, nonpartisan redistricting and eliminating party control of Congressional committees? This is what independents want. And many different voices are starting to agree. Former Congressman Mickey Edwards, a Republican, identifies some structural fixes in his article on July 1, 2011 in The Atlantic, "How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans."

After all, the Tea Party is a product of the current partisan system in which primary voter turnout is small, independents are mostly excluded, and hard core ideologues dominate. Gerrymandering to produce "safe seats" insures that the winner of the dominant party's primary wins the general election. Thus partisanship and ideology are structurally re-enforced.

It has been said that desperate times call for desperate measures. In these desperate times, some basic structural reforms will do. It's time to address the democracy deficit.