Government by consensus

William Schneider

October 12, 1990|By William Schneider

WHAT WE now have in this country is government by Establishment consensus. It works, except when it doesn't work. It is working in the Persian Gulf, where opposition to the U.S. military buildup is limited to the political fringes on the Left and the Right. It is not working in the case of the federal budget deficit, where the combined opposition of the Left and Right was strong enough to defeat the Establishment consensus.

Government by Establishment consensus works when the public supports that consensus -- as it does, so far, in the Persian Gulf. It does not work when the public opposes the consensus -- as it did in the case of the deficit deal the House rejected on Oct. 5.

Government by Establishment consensus is different from government by party responsibility. When a political party is in power and its program fails, people know what to do. They vote for the opposition party. That is what they did in 1980, when a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress failed to control the economy.

Government by Establishment consensus blurs the lines of party responsibility. A president of one party makes a deal with congressional leaders of the other party. If the deal fails, what do the voters do? They blame the whole Establishment because "they're all in this together." The voters conclude that government isn't working. And they look for unconventional candidates and outsiders who can express their displeasure with politics as usual.

But how else can the country be governed when the voters insist upon electing a Republican president and a Democratic Congress -- thereby making responsible party government impossible?

The answer is that political leaders have to do more than make a deal. They have to build a popular consensus behind it. That is exactly what they failed to do in last month's budget negotiations.

There are three things you have to do to get the voters to accept sacrifice. One is convince them that a real crisis is at hand. Though the voters are certainly concerned about the budget deficit, they do not see it as a crisis that threatens them in any immediate way.

Why, after eight years of enormous budget deficits, has the issue suddenly become a crisis? The answer is the 1985 Balanced Budget Act, which mandates huge across-the-board spending cuts. But that is an artificial crisis. It is hard to threaten the American people with a crisis of Congress' own devising.

In fact, Congress couldn't even frighten itself. Members knew they could always avert the worst effects of across-the-board cuts -- which is exactly what they did by extending the deadline for a budget deal and passing a continuing resolution to keep the government going until the new deadline.

The second thing you have to do is provide some measure of accountability. Haven't Republicans been telling the country for years that the more money Congress raises in taxes, the more it spends? Why, suddenly, would this year be any different? Americans are not going to buy any deficit reduction plan unless they are given concrete assurances about how the money will be used.

In his speech to the nation on Oct. 2, President Bush said, "If we fail to enact this agreement, our economy will falter, markets may tumble and recession will follow." But Bush did not explain how the budget deal would keep those things from happening. The best we got was a vague statement from Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan calling the budget deal a "credible" plan that, presumably, might result in interest-rate reductions.

Third, the process through which the deal is reached has to be open and democratic. No process could have been less open and less democratic than the secret negotiations that produced the original budget deal.

The budget summit was the second time the political Establishment has tried to solve the deficit problem by subverting the democratic process. The first was in 1988, when a blue-ribbon commission was appointed to come up with a deficit reduction plan. The commission failed because George Bush was elected president that year on a pledge of no new taxes. Bush could claim a popular mandate. Who elected the commission?

The summit also subverted the congressional budget process. The deal was presented to Congress as a fait accompli. "The president can't deliver us," a Republican member protested. "I'm not a package to be picked up at a department store."

Instead of selling the deal, Bush offered political cover. He told members of Congress to "blame the president" if they started getting the heat for their vote. But the one thing Bush cannot offer is political cover. He has no deep base of voter loyalty and no ability to rally the electorate to a cause. The Oct. 5 vote in the House confirmed the fact that Congress is not afraid of Bush.

There is a great irony in this. Bush has mobilized the greatest international coalition in history behind his Persian Gulf policy. But he can't get his own party to support his program in Congress.

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