CONGRESS began its summer recess last week and won’t reconvene until after Labor Day. You’d be forgiven for not noticing a difference. With just 15 bills signed into law so far this year, the 113th Congress is on pace to be the most unproductive since at least the 1940s.
But just because the legislature has ceased to function doesn’t mean our government has. Political decision making has moved to peripheral public entities, where power is exercised less transparently and accountability to voters is less direct. What we’re losing in the process isn’t government — it’s democracy.
Take the Federal Reserve. Absent any Congressional legislation to speak of — no short-term spending to increase job growth, no long-term plan to reduce the budget deficit — the nation’s central bank has been forced to do all the heavy lifting with the economy. The $85 billion of bonds it buys each month is now the main form of government stimulus to the economy as well as the linchpin of continued job growth. Congress’s inability to pass effective fiscal policy means that the Fed’s monetary policy, to keep long-term interest rates as low as possible, has become the only game in town for boosting private spending and investment.
But the strategy also poses serious risks: asset bubbles, if borrowers use the cheap money to speculate; bond collapses, if the Fed slows its bond buying too quickly and spooks the market; and inflation, if low interest rates cause buyers and sellers to expect prices to rise. It could also increase income inequality, by giving wealthy investors a cheap source of funds to expand their portfolios. Forcing the Fed to become the sole decision maker on the economy is also why the selection of a new Fed chairman has become so important — even more important than it ought to be.
Congress’s paralysis has also encouraged the Supreme Court to enter the political fray. Normally the judicial activism of recent years might be checked by Congressional action in response. But not now. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s opinion for the majority in the 2010 “Citizens United” case, which struck down limits on corporate campaign contributions, rested partly on the presumption that Congress would require corporations to disclose their political expenditures. But no bill requiring full disclosure has stood a chance of making it through the quagmire.
The court’s decision this summer in “Shelby County v. Holder” handed Congress the task of coming up with a new, updated formula for deciding which states and localities need permission from the Justice Department, under the Voting Rights Act, to make changes to their election processes. But legislative paralysis makes the passage of any new formula highly unlikely. Seen in this light, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s deciding vote last year to uphold the Affordable Care Act probably reflected his reasonable fear that the court would otherwise be viewed, not unfairly, as just another political battleground.
Or consider climate change. It’s a public debate the nation briefly embarked on in the 2008 presidential race, when John McCain and Barack Obama presented different plans for cap-and-trade systems. Naturally, gridlock in Congress put an end to it. After the election, Mr. McCain backed off any cap-and-trade plan, and the two parties have been at loggerheads over the environment ever since.
The issue ultimately lost the spotlight to a debate over Mr. Obama’s choice for administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, who is expected to use the E.P.A.’s authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate the carbon emissions of power plants; and to a Congressional showdown, motivated in part by Mr. Obama’s E.P.A. appointment, over the use of the filibuster on presidential nominees.
Mr. Obama won the skirmish and got his administrator, but don’t expect much public deliberation over carbon emissions from here on. The E.P.A. will handle the issue through regulatory rule making, mostly unseen by Congress and the public.
A final displacement of national politics has been onto state governments, now grappling with everything from undocumented immigrants and gun control to gay marriage and abortion. While many political matters should be left to the states, these cry out for federal standards because of the relative ease with which undocumented immigrants, gun sellers, gay couples and women seeking abortions can transport themselves to more accommodating jurisdictions — depending, of course, on their pocketbooks.
What’s more, these institutions — the Fed, the Supreme Court, giant regulatory agencies like the EPA, and the states — aren’t even understood by the public to be making political decisions with national implications. Media coverage tends to be narrowly drawn for insiders — macroeconomists, constitutional scholars, E.P.A. watchers, the residents of a particular state — or trivialized for outsiders: Should the next Fed chief be female? Are Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas too openly partisan? Is Ms. McCarthy too much of a firebrand? Are “red” states diverging from “blue” states?
The Republican right — mostly new House members who are supported by the Tea Party and who are in open rebellion against the rest of the right — are probably pleased with the gridlock in Congress. They would like nothing better than to stop the federal government from functioning. But they may not fully grasp that their efforts have only shifted power elsewhere in the system.
Some of the institutions gaining power may be making decisions consistent with conservative values: the Supreme Court and some state governments, for instance. But hardly all (the Fed and the E.P.A.).
In any event, it’s bizarre that a self-styled populist insurrection would end up making our government less accountable to the people. But that’s exactly what it’s done. What’s really gridlocked now is democracy.
[This appeared in the New York Times of 8/14/13]