For decades, Americans mostly left lawmaking to legislators in those infamous 'smoked-filled rooms.' Now, with cable news and the Internet, voters increasingly want to be involved and listened to.
Yes, this is happening again.
The United States government appears to be careening toward a government shutdown, again. Congress is taking the world closer to the brink of financial uncertainty by bargaining over the debt ceiling, again. And D.C. has settled into that now-familiar mode of thinly veiled panic, in which everyone assumes that America will not go off the cliff but no one is quite sure how, again.
And who is to blame? Well, perhaps us.
The government's chief budgeteer, Douglas Elmendorf, might not put it in those words exactly. There's plenty of blame to go around, after all. But as head of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Mr. Elmendorf is a man with a unique view on Washington's budget crises, and he had this to say last week:
“One obstacle to progress is that I’m not sure that members of the public understand the nature of the challenge,” he told reporters at a Monitor Breakfast.
In her coverage of the breakfast, the Monitor's Linda Feldmann noted a Washington Post poll that found 43 percent of Americans don’t want Congress to raise the debt limit, but 73 percent say going into default would do “serious harm” to the economy. The crossover in those numbers suggests that 26 percent of respondents either didn't understand what not raising the debt limit would do or were advocating a high-stakes game of political jiu-jitsu – willing to cause "serious harm" for a perceived long-term benefit.
In the current political climate, these opinions matter. It's not that the voice of the American voter never mattered. But for decades, Americans went about their daily lives and mostly let legislators get on with the business of legislating.
The result was the infamous "smoke filled rooms," the "backroom deals," the earmarks for "bridges to nowhere." As the public now sees daily, governing involves a host of choices, none of them simple. So they were made in secret and with no small number of personal favors (earmarks) to ease the political pain. Earmarks were called pork for a good reason: They greased the way for a bill's passage.