Today, President Barack Obama is speaking at the Western Campus of Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, where he is expected to unveil a series of proposals designed to kick-start economic growth. Among them is this request to Congress: that it permanently extend a $100-billion research and development tax credit and a $50-billion infrastructure push that would create temporary employment and rebuild roads, airstrips and railways.
Proposals like Obama’s are exactly the right type of government intervention in the current economy and are reminiscent of common policies in high-growth environments such as Brazil, Russia, India and China. Unfortunately, it seems the White House has caught on too late — it has only three more months to pass such legislation.
Republicans are expected to make massive gains in November’s midterm elections, after which they will likely block many Democratic initiatives. Republican leaders have been campaigning on the Democrats’ mishandling of the economy, but have been generally mute on what exact steps should be taken. Instead of taking a proactive approach, they will likely use their new strength in Congress to thwart governmental action in the economy to increase the Republican presidential candidate’s chances in 2012.
This obstructionist stance is in no way limited to Republicans. Instead, it is a structural characteristic of the opposition in American politics. Democrats behaved in a similar manner throughout the George W. Bush years and reaped the rewards in 2008. It is hypocritical of them to lament that Republicans might capitalize with the same tactic.
This is a permanent flaw in the American political system. Congress is powerful enough to block the executive’s agenda at will, and the constant campaigning that representatives must undertake because of biannual elections leads them to use that power to negative ends. Although solid policymaking requires a certain distance from the helter-skelter world of the 24-hour news cycle, legislators are forced to become populist screamers if they are to have a legitimate chance at job security.
In his book, From Wealth to Power, Fareed Zakaria (editor-at-large of Time magazine) used a case study of the United States from 1865 to 1908 to demonstrate the importance of executive supremacy over the legislature in a country’s ability to project power internationally. This was because of Congress’ reluctance to approve spending that would be unlikely to increase incumbents’ chances of re-election.
In the age of CNN, Rush Limbaugh and the blogosphere, the types of legislation that can pass Congress are restricted even further. Therefore, executive supremacy is not only a key to a state’s foreign policy power, but also its ability to effect economic and social change.
At the same time, the increasing ability of individual and particularly extreme fringe voices to influence the political environment seems to have created a shift away from executive supremacy. The increasing difficulty to pass legislation has made U.S. policy overly complicated and ineffective.
An example of this phenomenon can be seen in the health care bill passed earlier this year. That bill was 2,409 pages. The Social Security Act of 1935 was 64. The Constitution was four.
The bill ran as long as it did because as the administration tried to win over Congress, each compromise required more concessions. Unfortunately, though providing insurance to every American was an impressive achievement, the complications brought on by any 2,409-page piece of legislation are likely to overwhelm the benefits. Health care needed to be extended and simplified. Unfortunately, congressional obstructionism mandated that Obama choose one or the other.
This type of debacle can be contrasted with states that have strong executives. China is, of course, one example of this. The communist party’s grip on power has allowed decision-making to proceed extremely smoothly there for the past 20 years, facilitating astonishing growth rates. Clearly, China also demonstrates the flipside of the American dilemma — too much executive power leads to repression, a lack of human rights, and a lack of social and political expression.
A middle ground is still possible. Countries such as Brazil and England demonstrate that respect for human rights and public opinion can be maintained even when the executive branch has the power to pass smart and simple policies.
In 2008, Obama seemed to have the potential to move the United States closer to this more optimal balance of power between branches of government. Unfortunately, he seems to have neglected this duty and after the next elections, he will likely wish that he had not.
Daniel Charnoff is a senior majoring in international relations (global business). His column, “Through the Static,” runs Wednesdays.