1 October 2015

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The anti-governance party

By James Fallows

Krugman excerpt

Here’s a challenge for the press — and members of the American public, and people in the rest of the world affected by US debates — in reckoning with this moment in US political history. It’s one that Paul Krugman, with whom I’ve sometimes disagreed about politics, mentions almost as a throwaway line in his column early today, as shown at right.

The United States still has two major parties. But one of them is no longer interested actually in governing. And we’re dealing with the consequences.

Running any government, in any country subject to any kind of non–Kim Jong Un–style checks and balances, involves compromises, tradeoffs, making the best of imperfect choices. As John Boehner put it yesterday (a phrase I didn’t imagine myself writing) in explaining his frustration with his fire-breathing caucus, “You know this is the part that I really don't understand. Our founders didn't want some parliamentary system where if you won the majority you got to do whatever you wanted to do. They wanted this long, slow process.”

That Republican party competition now is over positions — who can be more anti-Obama (and Obamacare), pro-Israel, anti-Planned Parenthood, anti-climate science and EPA — rather than over policies, which imply the tedious work of operating a government, is a familiar point. Here are two less familiar reminders than the momentum in the party is not about this or that policy detail but effectively against governance itself.

1) From Australia, the American security-policy veteran Aaron Connelly — now with my friends at the Lowy Institute in Sydney — writes about the damage that anti-governance paralysis in Congress has done to America’s position in Asia. You should read the whole essay, but here is his description of the key points:

There are three core arguments:

    • First, while partisan gridlock in Congress has hindered the execution of US foreign policy overall,  it has disproportionately affected US policy towards the Asia Pacific, because the region has had few champions in either house in recent years. See, for example, the unequal treatment of ambassadorial nominees for the Middle East and and East Asia during the GOP lockdown on appointments last year, which I address in the paper.
    • To the extent individual members have focused on the region in recent years, it has often been in pursuit of narrow objectives focused on a single country or issue area, without reference to a broader strategy ...
    • Though there are signs of increased interest in the region among more junior members of the current Congress, the nature of that interest and whether it can be sustained will depend on how the White House and its partners in the region engage them. The problems of Congressional dysfunction, as you well know, aren’t going away soon. But we can cultivate leaders who better understand the stakes.

So when it comes to the region that contains the world’s most populous nations and its fastest-growing economies, and where long-term U.S. security interests are enormous in both a positive and a potentially negative sense, today’s posturing Congress cannot be bothered to do such things as confirming ambassadorial nominees.

2) From General Electric, an announcement that it is moving 350 jobs from the United States to Canada because of the ongoing Tea Party stand of blocking the Export–Import Bank.

Could this be posturing by GE to shift an American policy? Yeah, maybe. But if it were just about politics, would GE really care enough to put its own resources at risk? Far more convincing is this line from the Wall Street Journal account (emphasis added):

GE says that financing from an export credit agency such as Ex–Im is required for some $11 billion of projects for which it is preparing bids, including power turbines, generation equipment and aircraft engines …

GE says the Ex-Im fight is one of necessity because export financing is a condition to qualify for bidding on many projects, and other countries are willing to supply financing in exchange for GE shifting manufacturing work to their shores.

In the real world of big-ticket, high-stakes, often government-involved infrastructure and aerospace purchases, purchasers often require sovereign government backups, from the likes of ExIm or its counterparts, as a condition for a deal. But today’s party that doesn’t like government doesn’t care about destroying the governance on which real-world business depends.

When I began these ExIm chronicles ten days ago, I wrote the following, which for a moment I considered rash. Unfortunately I realize that it is not rash. It’s just plain accurate:

I could be polite about this, but I won’t. The people bringing down the Export–Import bank are zealots who care more about their theories than the completely foreseeable damage they are doing to American workers and companies.

We see nations with dysfunctional governments and call them “failed states.” This is not the announced destination of an anti-governance drive, but it is where it leads.

This post was originally published at The Atlantic

1 October 2015