osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

Remaining Unknowns for the Next Two Years

While I don't expect much legislatively, a lot of unknowns make it difficult to predict the direction of overall policy. Mind you, nothing moved from a progressive perspective in a way even the most pragmatic of us predicted after 2008, so I'm not sure how much credit to give my prognostication skills. But here goes:

1. Whither the Tea Party and the Tea Party Caucus? Increasingly, the Tea Party is looking like the other half of the transporter accident that produced the Netroots (of which I consider myself). What remains to be seen is whether they will have a greater influence on policy. We will see whether Tea Party caucus members get significant positions in Congress, or whether they get sidelined.

For those who like to think of the Tea Party as simply an extension of the Kochs and Dick Armey's Freedom Works, it isn't that simple. Tea Party has a lot of true believers. While this runs parallel to the corporate agenda 95% of the time (there is a reason Americans for Prosperity and Chamber of Commerce support the Tea Party candidates), that 5% can be critical -- especially if we need another sector-specific bailout.

What remains to be seen is whether the True Believers get the upper hand, and what happens if they don't. Happily for Rs in 2012, they can always blame the Senate and the Administration.

2. What will the Obama Administration decide is the 'lesson' of 2010? Unlike in 1994, Congress is more likely paralyzed than actively anti-Administration. At the end of the day, as Bush showed in 2006-08, an Administration that decides to ignore Congress can still pretty much do whatever it wants when Congress is incapable of actually passing legislation. To the extent Obama wants to achieve anything over the next two years, it comes through his agencies.

There are a number of messages one can draw from the election, but the popular wisdom converges on three main themes: (1) voters are disgusted with everyone and want problems fixed, and will continue to vote out incumbents generally unless 'things change;' (2) The 'American People' have rejected 'Big Government' and embrace the Tea Party agenda of deregulation, further tax cuts, and significant cuts in discretionary spending; and, (3) You cannot win an election by being spineless pussies who piss off your base and run from your accomplishments.

In fine irony, while message (1) is probably the most widely felt based on polling and anecdotal evidence, it is also the most useless and least likely to have any impact on policy. There are two very good reasons for this. The first is that when you elect people with diametrically opposed views of what is supposed to be the role of government, you cannot expect them to "work together." Marsha Blackburn and Henry Waxman cannot "work together" on the Commerce Committee because they genuinely and sincerely believe that the policy solution touted by the other as the appropriate response is a disaster. Worse, voters have demonstrated that they will not reward a willingness to "work together." This flows from a number of factors, not least of which is voter ignorance of how government actually works. But whereas a previous generation of voters actually cared about what their elected representatives did, we have increasingly seen the trend of nationalized elections (partly, I suspect due to our crappy news media, but voters deserve their share of the credit here for falling down on their civic duty).

Finally, simply telling someone to fix something is about as useless a piece of advice and expectation as there is. "I don't care how, just fix it!" Is not an adult attitude, and doesn't really provide any guidance. For one thing, fix what? High unemployment? OK, how? Traditional economics points to very few ways "government" can "fix" an economy in a tail spin -- especially in the short term -- and all of them involve either expansion of government or significant short term pain. Any conservative who wants to talk about how fiscal conservatism is doing wonders in England or how Maggie Thatcher and "New Labor" built a better UK economy through deregulation needs to be willing to pay the political price of cutting popular programs and telling the voters that elimination of the Department of Education means no high school sports programs because there is no more federal money to pay for stuff.

The one caveat to this rule is to invent an entirely new sector to the economy. This is what happened in 1994, when government investment in "the Internet" paid off big time, followed by two policies that encouraged significant expenditures in the telecom sector (spectrum auctions in 1993, Telecom Act of 1996, which encouraged billions in investment by would-be telecom competitors). It also helped that the expected pay off in productive from incorporating IT into the business sector began to happen, so that productivity began to climb significant in the mid-1990s.

The problem is, I don't see any of that on the horizon. We have lost the edge on renewable/alternate energy to China and Brazil. We have nothing going on in nanotech that looks break out. The space industry continues to be an "also ran." So any fix of the economy must emanate from some change in government policy. But, like the Children of Israel at Mt. Caramel, the American public is unwilling to chose either "big government" under Yahweh -- with all that socialist 'redistribute the wealth' stuff -- or embrace the private sector of competing gods like Ba'al and Ashtoret. They just want the drought to be over.

So message #1 from voters, "fix our problems or we will keep firing you," while received, has little actual impact. This leaves the question of whether to embrace message #2 ("do nothing that looks like 'big government'") or message #3 ("you can't win if you piss off your base and generally convey to everyone that you are a total pussy who hasn't accomplished anything"). Of note, the biggest advocates for embracing message #2 are leaving. But Ds have consistently embraced message #2, so we will have to see.

3. What Happens In The Senate The Senate still needs to actually get stuff done, like appointments. It is possible that Rs would go along with reform of Senate procedures in anticipation of winning a majority in 2012. Of course, that would be an excellent reason for Ds not to go along. But they cannot accomplish anything in 2010 without reforming Senate procedure. Do Ds and Rs take advantage of the stalemate in Congress to fix the Senate, banking on winning in 2012, or do they decide to leave things as they are as insurance if they lose in 2012?

Fun times ahead.

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