Washington’s War Against The People

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David Schoenbrod Trustee Professor of Law, New York Law School
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Every day brings fresh news of the battle between Donald Trump and his opponents, but regardless of who wins the battle, its eventual conclusion will not end the war that got him elected.  The war is not between the Trumpites and Anti-Trumpites, but rather between Washington insiders and the great bulk of other Americans who believe that those insiders have tricked them.  That belief is why Bernie Sanders and Trump, both running as outsiders, did better than expected in the 2016 elections.  That belief is also why, by a four to one margin, voters agreed with the statement in Trump’s inaugural address that “a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.”  The Rasmussen poll showed that large majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents agreed.  Yet, since assuming office, neither the new president nor the leaders of either party in Congress have yet to show resolve to stop the trickery.  Unless that changes, both the victors and vanquished in this battle will suffer miserable defeat in the ongoing war.

The war began in the late 1960s when members of Congress and presidents of both parties began to develop new tricky ways of enacting laws and spending programs that let them take the credit for promising good news while avoiding the blame for producing bad results.  The result is a vicious cycle of grand promises, failed policies, and spiraling distrust of Washington.  According to Pew Research, in 1964, before the trickery began, 76 percent of voters trusted Washington to “do the right thing” “just about always” or “most of the time.”  That impressive figure fell to a woeful 19 percent in 2015.  No wonder so many voted to “drain the swamp” in 2016.

To promise good news while avoiding the blame for bad results, members of Congress and presidents devised and utilize five key tricks:

  1. The Money Trick lets them get credit for tax cuts and spending increases, but shift the blame for the inevitable tax increases and spending cuts to their successors in office when the deficits and debt will become unsustainable.
  2. The Debt Guarantee Trick lets them get support from the too-big-to-fail financial giants whose profits they increase by guaranteeing their debts at little or no cost, but shift the blame for the inevitable bailouts to their successors in office when the speculation encouraged by the cheap debt guarantees will trigger another fiscal crisis and economic crash.
  3. The Federal Mandate Trick lets them get credit for the benefits they require the state and local government to deliver, but shift the blame for the burdens required to deliver those benefits to state and local officials.
  4. The Regulation Trick lets them get credit for granting rights to regulatory protection, but shift the blame for the burdens required to vindicate those rights and the failures to deliver the protection promised to federal agencies.
  5. The War Trick lets members of Congress get credit for having a statute that requires them to take responsibility for going to war, while colluding with the president to evade responsibility for wars that might later prove controversial.  So members of Congress can march in the parade if the war proves popular, but otherwise put the entire blame on the president.

Although aware of the trickery, voters can’t see through the complicated sleights of hand that allow elected officials to evade blame.

These tricks, however, are not inevitable.  The Constitution was designed to make members of Congress and presidents accountable for the consequences of their legislation and that’s the way Washington worked for over a century and a half.  That’s why people trusted Washington until it changed the ground rules of government in the late 1960s.

The Honest Deal Act—which would change the incentives and fundamentally reform government procedures that make Washington unable to function in the interest of citizens—is one solution that should immediately be enacted by Congress.  Unless the ground rules are changed once again, this time to make elected officials shoulder responsibility for consequences, an increasingly resentful electorate will bring an increasingly erratic government.

David Schoenbrod is Trustee Professor of Law at New York Law School and author of DC Confidential: Inside the Five Tricks of Washington (Encounter Books, March 2017)