While Congress has earned its reputation, the opinion polls are mistaken about one thing. In a very real sense Congress is doing its job. Its members are representing the interests and preferences of the voters who elected them. Congress is at an impasse because our nation is at an impasse.
As a practical matter, it is unreasonable to expect, or demand, that Congress figure a way out of this. As a representative body acting together, Congress is not really equipped to do that.
Each member of Congress is doing what is expected of him or her and the resultant impasse provides a classic example of the difference between management and leadership. When the Congress and the nation are so evenly divided, we cannot manage our way out of it. Only a leader can do this. Managers do what is expected of them. Leaders do the unexpected.
It is possible, but not likely, that such a leader could be a member of Congress. In the past, individuals have stepped forward to move Congress and the country through challenging times. President John F. Kennedy wrote a book, "Profiles in Courage," about eight individual senators in our history who proved to be courageous politicians, even at some considerable risk to their careers.
The book's title is accurate, though, and it is more about courage than leadership. Courageous votes in Congress might help, but they will not by themselves alter the impasse in our nation. That will take leadership.
Leadership is needed because out-of-the-box politics is not enough.
According to the public opinion polls, most Americans believe that "politics" is holding back our progress. They are not mistaken about that, but when we strip away the politics surrounding the key economic problems we face, the problems do not go away. They are still there. And they don't have obvious or easy solutions. The political impasse over these problems is not the cause of their intractability. It is the result of it.
Five big-league economics problems that fall into this category are: health care; debt; income distribution; unemployment; and taxes – with the last also acting as a holding bin for the important, but less pressing, problems of demography, security and resource costing.
What makes them big-league problems is that each is capable of threatening our economic system's growth and prosperity. What makes them seem intractable is that there seems to be no solution, only short-run "winning" and "losing." The lack of leadership is transforming our national perspective into an "us vs. them" competition.
Each of the five key problems has at its center an unanswered, or unanswerable, question. Health care, for example, has a complex economic structure built on increasing costs and profit-supported research. We do not know the net cost effects of adding thirty-three million people to health insurance rolls or the net revenue effects of the federal mandates on individuals and businesses. Even if we knew those down to the dollar, though, we would still have to address the increasing cost issue, and we have not done so.
With each of these key economic problems, we know more about solutions that have failed than about the right answer. We know from the experience of others, for example, that ignoring the growing federal debt is not a satisfactory answer.
We know, too, that efforts to restructure income distribution through income taxes haven't been very effective. Also, chronic high levels of unemployment seem to be the unwelcome companion of economic growth in developed countries, especially those with large government sectors.
The level of taxation at federal, state and local levels has been affected by the increased costs of government services. And if taxes get too high they pull too much money out of the productive side of the economy, slowing or halting economic growth. The government cost problem also has an additional dimension caused by government's tendency to bury costs in the accounting swamp of unfunded future liabilities, insuring a long life for the issue.
Each of the problems can be seen that way -- as essentially nonpolitical economic problems, and leaders understand this.
It would be unrealistic and probably unwise to wish for a nonpolitical leader. America has done just fine having political leaders in the past. What is most sorely needed, though, is leadership that recognizes when problems have political solutions and when they don't; when winning has a point and when it doesn't.
James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.