Corruption as the cure for Congress’ ills

Your faithful commentator was reminded of this October 2013 blog entry as he read Jonathan Rauch’s article in the latest issue of The Atlantic, headlined “The Case for Corruption,” which attempts to explain “why Washington needs more honest graft.”

The government shutdown last fall wasted billions of dollars, upset innumerable plans, and besmirched both political parties. But it did have one constructive effect. Surveying the wreckage, grown-ups in both parties realized that the politics of public confrontation is a lot better at closing the government than running it. So, to avoid a repeat, they decided to try something old. Something very old. In a healthy return to machine politics, they handed budget negotiations over to political hacks cutting deals behind closed doors.

Once upon a time, the budget process was reasonably regular. In fact, it was conducted under what was called regular order. The budget-committee chairmen would do some horse trading to build a consensus within each chamber, the House and Senate would then pass those budgets without too much ado, and the two chambers would work out their differences in a conference committee. Then the appropriations committees would do more or less the same thing, making sure to spread around enough pork-barrel goodies to get their friends paid off and the budget passed. The president and the congressional leaders would be involved throughout the process, every now and then calling a budget summit, but most of the real work would go on behind the scenes.

In the past few years, by contrast, regular order has been replaced by regular chaos. Public ultimatums supplanted private negotiations, games of chicken replaced mutual back-scratching, and bumptious Republican House members took to dictating terms to their putative leadership. Last fall, after one tantrum too many, Congress seemed exhausted. As part of a deal to reopen the government, it returned the task of setting the next fiscal year’s budget to the budget and appropriations committees, sending them off to a smoke-free smoke-filled room to cut a deal. The result, a trillion-dollar spending bill loaded with incentives for each side, sailed through Congress in January.

How often backroom deal making will work in today’s age of hyper-partisanship remains to be seen, but Congress’s recourse to it represents a welcome rediscovery of a home truth. Politics needs good leaders, but it needs good followers even more, and they don’t come cheap. Loyalty gets you only so far, and ideology is divisive. Political machines need to exist, and they need to work.

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