Government's End


By Jon Rauch

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An earlier edition of this extraordinarily prescient, elegantly written book created a sensation among Washington media insiders when it was published more than five years ago under the title Demosclerosis. In it, Jonathan Rauch, a former correspondent for The Economist and a columnist for National Journal, showed with startling clarity the reasons why America’s political system (and, in fact, other political systems as well) was becoming increasingly ineffective. Today, as Rauch’s predictions continue to manifest themselves in a national politics of “sound and fury” and little effective legislation, and in increasing voter cynicism, this book has achieved renown as the classic and essential work on why politics and government don’t work. In Government’s End, Rauch has completely rewritten and updated his earlier work to reassess his theory, analyze the political stalemate of the last few years, and explain why sweeping reform efforts of the kind led by Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Newt Gingrich aren’t the answers. He also looks ahead at what is likely to happen — or not happen — next, and proposes ideas for what we must do to fix the system. For anyone who cares about the health of American democracy — and indeed of international security — Government’s End is a fascinating, disturbing, and vitally important book.


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To the memory of Mancur Olson, teacher

The Trap
BETWEEN the time when the results became clear and the moment when the new president-elect emerged to acknowledge his victory, two long hours passed. A crowd of fifty thousand stood waiting for their man in front of the Old State House in Little Rock, Arkansas, shivering in bitterly cold weather that, being unseasonable, caught people in their shirtsleeves. Millions of citizens elsewhere waited, too. Younger people could barely remember a Democratic presidency and wondered how the first Democratic president-elect in sixteen years would sound. Their elders wondered whether the new man would show that he had learned from his Democratic predecessors' mistakes.
At 11:22 P.M. central time, on November 3, 1992, Bill Clinton finally emerged, looking exhausted but happy. He had made history, and he knew it. His speech was short and began with thankyous for the crowd, the family, the voters, the running mate. Then came what was, in effect, the first substantive statement of the Clinton years. He announced that he would "face problems too long ignored," and that people needed to be brought together "so that our diversity can be a source of strength." Then he said: "I think perhaps the most important thing that we understand here in the heartland of Arkansas is the need to reform the political system, to reduce the influence of special interests and give more influence back to the kind of people that are in this crowd tonight by the tens of thousands. And I will work . . . to do that."
Campaigning against special interests—railing against them and deploring them and promising to break them—is a venerable American tradition. In 1948, President Harry Truman cried out from his railway car that his campaign was "a crusade of the people against the special interests," and the people cheered. In private, twenty years earlier, Calvin Coolidge warned his successor, Herbert Hoover, about the armies of interested parties who would be coming to see him. "You have to stand, every day, three or four hours of visitors," Coolidge said. "Nine-tenths of them want something they ought not to have. If you keep dead still, they will run down in three or four minutes. If you even cough or smile, they will start up all over again." Long before Coolidge, James Madison thought hard about how to contain the undue influence of what he called "faction," by which he meant "a number of citizens . . . who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." If he had known the term "special interest," no doubt he would have used it.
The curious thing is that ever since Coolidge's day, and especially since Truman's, interest-group activity has increased. The more the public complained and the more the politicians promised change, the more the lobbies seemed to thrive and the more powerful they seemed to become. And so the president-elect stood there in 1992, promising "to reduce the influence of special interests," as so many had promised before him.
Some years earlier, another young politician began a crusade against "special interests." Like Bill Clinton, he set out to transform government into something more effective, more forwardlooking, more responsive. He was as determined as Bill Clinton, and also as bright (which was saying something). His name was David Stockman, and in those years, in the mid-1970s, he worked as executive director of the House Republican Conference, where his boss was a rather obscure moderate Republican named John Anderson. In 1975, out of the blue, Stockman announced himself to the world with a brilliant and provocative article that opened a new conservative front in the war against big government.
"The vast increase in federal social welfare outlays," wrote Stockman in The Public Interest magazine, "has created in its wake a political maintenance system based in no small part on the cooptation and incorporation of Congress itself." Conservatives and liberals alike channeled social spending, not to those who most needed it or to the places where it would do the most good, but to all 435 congressional districts, in a rain of political manna. The maxims of real-world social spending included "Don't close the money sluice no matter how outmoded the program" and—a concise formulation of political utilitarianism—"The greatest goodies for the greatest number." Urban-aid programs and housing programs and education programs had become for the 1970s what dams and bridges had been for the 1930s and 1940s. As a consequence, "what may have been the bright promise of the Great Society has been transformed into a flabby hodge-podge, funded without policy consistency or rigor, that increasingly looks like a great social pork barrel."
Stockman soon went on to become a Republican congressman in his own right, and so fiercely did his intellect and ambition burn on Capitol Hill that the new Republican president, Ronald Reagan, chose him to be the administration's budget director after the 1980 election. From that post, Stockman became general of the campaign he had sketched in his article. He was the chief ideologue and strategist for what amounted to the first reformist conservative administration since the New Deal. As the Reagan administration began, he said: "We have to show that we are willing to attack powerful clients with weak claims. I think that's critical to our success—both political and economic success."
What happened was not what Stockman had in mind. Within five years Stockman had retired from the Reagan administration and from politics, embittered and disappointed. "In 1986," he wrote in the late months of that year in a postscript to his angry book The Triumph of Politics, "the federal government again spent 24 percent of the GNP, compared to a pre-1980 norm of about 20 percent. Why? Because the White House has no semblance of a program or political will to spend any less." The powerful clients, he said, had won. After his book was published, little was heard from Stockman.
At about the same time, however, another reformer stood before a small group of conservative activists and explained to the frustrated audience how, despite Ronald Reagan's failure, the fight against entrenched government could yet be won. I happened to be there that night and was fascinated by the peculiar but compelling visitor. Newt Gingrich talked grandly and abstractly and seemed as eccentric as his name. Yet his magnetism was apparent, and his unruly intelligence dazzling. The problem until then, he explained, had been failure to think "outside the box." Whereupon he drew a box: a matrix of dots, three by three. He reminded his audience of the old puzzle: Connect all of these dots by drawing only four lines. The trick is that you can't solve the puzzle unless you draw lines that extend beyond the boundaries of the matrix. But if you break out of bounds, he said, you can solve it.
In 1995, he got his chance. When he became speaker of the House, Gingrich was determined to do from Capitol Hill what David Stockman had tried to do from the White House. The result, to Gingrich's credit, included two landmark reforms of recalcitrant and dysfunctional federal programs: farm subsidies and welfare. Elsewhere, however, Gingrich's failure was complete and comprehensive. Indeed, for his party it proved catastrophic. By 1999, Gingrich was a memory.
The contours of Gingrich's assault on Washington were different from those of Stockman's assault, and both differed sharply from Bill Clinton's attempts to change things, most notably the health-care reform effort of 1993 and 1994. Yet the fate of all three reformers was more or less the same. Washington remained much as it had been before. ("Only more so," a wag might add.) Stockman retired denouncing his own failure; Gingrich was unceremoniously dumped by his party. Clinton met, in some respects, the saddest fate of all: He entered office as a reformer, promising a new dynamism in government; he left office as a manager whose domestic policy traded in microscopic initiatives. In a sense, the man who stood on the steps of the Old State House that night in 1992, who promised to "reduce the influence of special interests and give more influence back to the kind of people that are in this crowd tonight," packed up and left town long before Bill Clinton did. As Clinton left the stage, no viable reform movement, conservative or liberal or anything else, remained on the field.
No doubt the future would bring more reformers, more cries to take up arms against "special interests" and return government "to the people." Nonetheless, the twenty or so years that began with Ronald Reagan's election shed a cold and brilliant light on what it is that government's would-be reformers, of whatever stripe, are up against. Change is as easy to promise as ever. But it has grown a good deal harder to deliver. Politicians like Stockman and Clinton and Gingrich and their successors and their successors cannot hope to keep their promises to reform the sprawling establishment of Washington, or to "reduce the influence of special interests," until they unriddle the paradoxes of a political malady whose perverse dynamics undermine government and enrage voters.
Why does the "special-interest" sector grow year after year, despite the politicians' promises and the public's disgust? Why does this sector feed on its own growth, with no limits in sight?
Why is it that, despite America's extraordinary wealth and the advent of all kinds of new problem-solving technology, the American government's capacity to solve large problems appears to have diminished sharply since the 1960s? Why has government ceased, for the most part, to be a creative force?
Why does "getting things done" in the short run often make problem solving more difficult for the government in the long run? Why does the constant commotion of activity in Washington stymie rather than advance the effectiveness of government as a whole?
Why are many liberals and Democrats, with their greater proclivity to use government to right wrongs and correct flaws, paralyzing the very government that they believe they are championing? Why are many conservatives, with their blame-the-liberals rhetoric, actually feeding the "big government" that they constantly decry?
Why was Bill Clinton's election-night rhetoric, which promised to reinvigorate the system by reducing the influence of "them" (the special interests) and increasing the influence of "us" (the American people), a cause rather than a cure of the problem he sought to solve?
Why is it that the body politic demands "change" in the abstract but recoils from it in the particular? Why did three waves of determined reform fail, each more spectacularly than the last?
If politicians and the public do not understand the answers to those questions, they will not have a chance.
"The clear mandate of this election," Clinton remarked a few days after winning in 1992, "was an end of politics as usual, an end to the gridlock in Washington, an end to finger-pointing and blame." Alas, his attack on "special interests" was not particularly encouraging, because it implied that the problem was "them." Wrong. The problem is us.

Sighs and Moans

For me, the first inkling that something malign was happening came in February 1985, only a few months after I arrived in Washington. Having just left my job with a newspaper in the South to become a reporter for National Journal, I wandered into the Senate press gallery and beheld the tall, gangly figure of Senator Alan Simpson. The Wyoming Republican was doing what's known as "holding the floor" while the majority and minority leaders worked behind the scenes on some compromise or other. In this case, holding the floor consisted of haranguing an almost entirely empty chamber (and this was before television came to the Senate). I sat down in the gallery, at first listening idly and then becoming absorbed. To this day, I have never witnessed another political speech like that one.
Simpson was complaining about the partisan games that go on in the Capitol. "Out there in the American public," he said, "are people who are watching us go through this, trying to see who can hook the anchor on the Democrats or who can hook the anchor on the Republicans, who look upon that as a childish activity." Well, that was certainly true, but it was hardly new. Simpson went on, however, to talk about the political uses of fear.
"We are frozen in place," he mused. "We are frozen in place because there are enough of us who get a coterie of people and interest groups and media about us and say they are going to do a number on this issue or are going to do this or that." He talked about a veterans' lobbyist he knew. "We have had some very earthy discussions, the two of us. He is a delightful, pleasant guy. But the emphasis was to get the two million members; and you do that . . . just like we do things here—by juicing up the troops. . . . What happened to us was we got a $200 billion deficit by juicing up the troops." And then he said: "One of the things . . . that we do here so beautifully . . . is the use of fear, raw fear. You can do a lot with raw fear. You can do a lot with raw fear with people who do like nuclear power or do not like it. You can do a lot with raw fear with farmers. You can do a lot with raw fear with uranium workers. You can do a lot with raw fear with oil and gas workers. You can do a lot with raw fear with veterans. You can do a lot with raw fear with Social Security recipients.
"And that is what we do beautifully here in this place, because I guess we really are all impelled by a raw fear—and that raw fear is, I would guess, a fear of what the electorate will do to us, and, of course, maybe that is the primal raw fear in this place."
Simpson's speech was more than just an oration; it was an outburst. The striking thing about it, besides its candor, was the level of frustration it exposed. At that point, "gridlock" had yet to become a political cliché. The same party controlled the Senate and the White House (though not the House) under an extraordinarily popular president. Yet here was rhetoric of stagnation and defeat: "We are frozen in place." Simpson's complaint went deeper than the parties or personalities in the White House or the Congress, deeper even than the difficulty of getting things done. The founders, after all, intended that personalities clash and that getting things done be difficult: better safe than sorry. Simpson's complaint seemed to be that individuals and groups had become adept at mobilizing fear to achieve political goals. His tone suggested the pain of one who is in a trap and does not understand why he can't get out.
In May 1985, three months after Alan Simpson's speech, one Democratic representative from Texas, a former banker and high school teacher named Marvin Leath, rose in the House to propose a budget package that would have significantly reduced the deficit. In those days, the deficit was so large that it threatened to spiral out of control. In his package, Leath included most of what the experts agreed needed to be done: reductions in Ronald Reagan's defense buildup, some increases in taxes, and the abolition of one year's cost-of-living increase in Social Security payments. This last provision was especially courageous, because a Democrat proposing to dock Social Security was like a hemophiliac volunteering for a sword fight. On the House floor, Leath gave a gutsy speech that deserved to be remembered, though it wasn't: "As you could most certainly expect," he said, "conservatives are pointing fingers and telling liberals, 'It's your fault. All the years of massive social and domestic spending are responsible for these deficits. Let's gore your ox, and we can solve the problem.' And just as certainly, as you might also expect, liberals are pointing fingers and telling conservatives, 'It's your fault. These massive defense buildups and these massive tax cuts are responsible for these deficits. Let's gore your ox, and we can solve the problem.'
"The . . . truth is, we all know who is to blame. Democrats and Republicans are to blame. Liberals and conservatives and all in between are to blame. The people are to blame for believing all the garbage they get bombarded with through the mail raising money from both parties and a thousand special-interest lobbies who circle this Capitol in their Mercedes automobiles after leaving their million-dollar homes in northern Virginia."
Here again, as in Simpson's speech, were the undertones of rage and entrapment. Politicians have a poor image, but anyone who knows them knows that by and large they are hardworking people who want only the best for their country. They do not want to make things worse; they want to make them better. Yet increasingly they feel that they cannot make things better. Increasingly they play the blame game without wanting to but without understanding why they play it or how to escape. They wonder why the swelling crowds of aides and lobbyists and campaign consultants seem not to empower them but to hem them in. And in all of those feelings, they mirror the feelings of the people who elect them.
Many people in Washington admired Leath's budget package, because it made good sense. Practically everyone admired Leath, who stood up and told the truth and stuck his neck out. Practically everyone voted against him, too. His package was defeated, 372 to 56. In 1990, disgusted with his and Congress's inability to solve problems, Leath announced that he would not seek reelection to a seventh term. He became a lobbyist.
For thirty years, the American public has increasingly expressed feelings of frustration and entrapment similar to Alan Simpson's and Marvin Leath's. In 1958, around three-fourths of the people said they trusted the government in Washington to "do what's right" always or most of the time. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a long decline of confidence began. By about 1980, the trust level had fallen by more than half, and, apart from a temporary excursion upward during the Reagan years, it has stayed in the 20 to 30 percent range (depending on which poll you look at) ever since. Americans' mistrust of their government's capacity to "do the right thing" ranks among the largest and most consequential political changes of the twentieth century. Other data tell the same story of disillusionment. Two-thirds of Americans, solid majorities of Democrats and Republicans alike, say that the government creates more problems than it solves, rather than vice versa. By more than two to one, people say that abuses by the federal government are a bigger problem than abuses by big business, and that "big government" is a greater threat to the country in the future than "big business" or "big labor." Between the early 1950s and the early 1990s, the proportion of people saying that government wastes "a lot" of their tax money rose from fewer than half to 75 percent. By the time the 1980s came, politicians routinely campaigned against "Washington" and "government," even as voters demanded more from both places. People felt they deserved more, yet they felt they received less, and they didn't understand why. The more they struggled, the more they felt beset.

Red Herrings

The easiest way to refer to government's problems is as "special-interest gridlock." That description isn't completely wrong, but it is far enough off target to be badly misleading.
For one thing, the "gridlock" metaphor implies that nothing gets done. It implies, in other words, that the problem is lack of governmental motion or lack of activity. One of the main goals of this book is to refocus attention away from the quantity of motion in Washington and toward the effectiveness of results. The central issue is not "Why does Washington get so little done?" It is "Why has Washington's activity become so ineffective at solving problems?"
In Washington, after all, things always get done. Despite the talk of gridlock, the government reliably passes scads of laws and scads more regulations and, by any objective measure, gets a lot done. Even the do-nothing, "gridlocked" days of George Bush were in fact neither do-nothing nor really gridlocked. Those years saw passage of the sweeping Clean Air Act and other environmental measures, the equally sweeping Americans with Disabilities Act, new money for child care, a major highway bill, and much else besides. In just the field of civil rights, during the supposedly gridlocked Bush period the government enacted, among other new programs and laws, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Voting Rights Language Assistance Act, the Civil Liberties Act Amendments of 1992, the Minority Farmers Rights Act, the Japanese American Redress Entitlement Program, the antiredlining provisions of the banking-reform law, the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, and the aforementioned Americans with Disabilities Act. According to congressional figures, the number and page count of laws enacted during "gridlock" remained well in line with the post-1970 norm.
FIGURE 1.1 Washington's Rise and Fall
SOURCES: University of Michigan National Election Studies; Norman J. Ornstein, Thomas E. Mann, and Michael J. Malbin, Vital Statistics on Congress, 1997-1998 (Congressional Quarterly, 1998).
In fact, if you look at the record, simple gridlock can't be the problem. Figure 1.1 shows two basic indicators plotted against each other: people's confidence in the government, as measured by their responses to that classic "trust in government" question, and pages of new laws enacted by each Congress. Though I would not want to make any sophisticated social-science claims for this chart, it certainly rules out the standard gridlock hypothesis in which people are unhappy because the wheels in Washington are spinning too slowly: Over almost forty years, the more activity Washington generated, the less happy people were. So "getting more done," however desirable or undesirable it may be on its own account, cannot go to the root of the problem.
The question is not the quantity of activity but how effectively a given amount of activity solves problems "on net." That phrase "on net"—meaning "on balance," after the wins and losses are tallied up—is important. In life, every solution creates at least some new problems. The trick is always to find solutions that create fewer problems than they solve. In the classic example, if you kill a fly with a flyswatter, you come out ahead on net. If you kill a fly with a cannon, you create more problems than you solve. To the extent that an institution can reliably solve more problems than it creates, it has problem-solving capacity.
Problem-solving capacity is precisely what seems to have been shrinking for the federal government. Political activity has become a kind of flailing that creates frenzy but does little good, or even makes problems worse. Wheels spin and gears mesh, but the car goes nowhere, or goes everywhere at once, or shakes itself to pieces. More problems seem to be created than solved.
The other trouble with the term "special-interest gridlock" is its implication that a few fat cats manipulate the system for their own narrow advantage. The fact is that the American system of governance today is much less at the mercy of any narrow, manipulative few than at any time in the past. The era of the backroom bosses who called the shots, of the rich patrons who could buy the system, is over. The Leath budget was not defeated by any cigar-chomping industrialist with an interest in protecting his western mining interests. It was defeated by a coalition of interests representing virtually everybody. The American Association of Retired Persons alone boasts well over 30 million members, or one of every six adult Americans; because most of us have aged relatives, most of us are among the group's indirect clients; because we all grow old, each one of us is among the group's potential members. If you add the farmers and veterans and oil workers and all the others whom Simpson mentioned and Leath took on, you see there is no longer anything particularly special about "special interests." Today everyone is organized, and everyone is part of an interest group. We have met the special interests, and they are us.
If, however, the interests are no longer special, they are not quite general, either. And here is a puzzle. Conventional wisdom has suggested that as more Americans got organized, and as the process was opened up to more groups and classes than ever before, the claims of all of those competing interests would be weighed and mediated in the political process, producing a more balanced and satisfactory result than the fat-cat system had ever done. But that is not what has happened. The public today is less happy than before, and problems seem less likely to be solved.
It is possible to cook up all kinds of ad hoc explanations for what went wrong. Many have some truth in them. But most of them are ultimately unsatisfying.
A standard complaint has been lack of leadership. But that diagnosis does not explain enough. There is little evidence that the people are electing poorer leaders now than in the past, that a worse class of person runs for public office, or that human leadership capacity has deteriorated over time. Some politicians are fools and rogues, but many more are bright, hardworking, and honest. In times of crisis—the debate over whether to authorize war in the Persian Gulf in 1991, for instance—the system still can and does rise to the challenge magnificently. At exceptional moments, leadership can still be found in abundance, even in the rank and file of politicians. Marvin Leath's ill-fated 1985 budget proposal was only one example.


On Sale
Aug 1, 2008
Page Count
304 pages

Jon Rauch

About the Author

Acclaimed as the smartest young political journalist in Washington, Jonathan Rauch writes a bi-weekly column for National Journal and contributes widely to other magazines and journals. A graduate of Yale University, he lives in Washington, D.C.

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