Political Gridlock Is an Enemy of Children

Federal Budget

According to a new report by Sarah Binder at the Brookings Institution entitled Polarized We Govern?, “Today, 75 percent of the salient issues on Washington’s agenda are subject to legislative gridlock.”

And at Vox, Andrew Prokop has pulled together five charts from a variety of sources, including Binder’s research, that highlight how Congress is extremely: (1) gridlocked; (2) unpopular; (3) polarized; (4) unproductive; and, (5) expensive.

With important issues facing our nation, very little is getting done. And for our nation’s children, stalemate in Congress precludes action on addressing a wide array of problems, including: changing child welfare financing even though the cost of inaction threatens the very lives of children; addressing child poverty; taking action to reduce gun violence; addressing child labor in tobacco fields; reforming of the No Child Left Behind education law that has incited grassroots movements of teachers, parents and students against the over-testing it has imposed on children in schools across the country; addressing technical problems for kids in the Affordable Care Act, such as the “kids glitch;” and, making critical investments in our children such as early childhood education.

Gridlock has become an enemy of children.

And, on the question of whether “our political system is dangerously broken,” Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution writes that, although he can “sympathize” with the skeptics of doom:

I believe these times are strikingly different from the past, and the health and well-being of our democracy is properly a matter of great concern. We owe it to ourselves and our country to reconsider our priors and at least entertain the possibility that these concerns are justified — even if it’s uncomfortable to admit it.

Mann points to the growing polarization in Congress that results in hardball tactics and partisanship, “even on issues with little or no ideological content and a tribalism that is now such a prominent feature of American politics.” Dysfunction has become the norm and the parties are unable to work together in a meaningful way to address a wide array of our nation’s problems, even when popular solutions are staring Congress in the face.

The result is that Members of Congress and their staff are so frustrated that more and more good people are leaving and many of those that stay behind no longer think in terms of what Congress is supposed to do, which is to “legislate.”

Things other than what is “best for children” are often put first. For example, when we talk to Members of Congress and their staff about important policy issues affecting children, such as policies that would cut child poverty, reduce child abuse and neglect or improve child health and development, we often get answers such as:

  • “This is really great but our leadership doesn’t want us working with the sponsor of that bill because they are up for reelection and potentially vulnerable.”
  • “We like it but others in our political party and Caucus might not, so we need to check with our leadership and committee staff before we can do anything.”
  • “This idea is fantastic but the other side doesn’t care about facts and is just going to oppose and filibuster everything anyway.”
  • “What a terrific idea but I just don’t know how we can possibly get that passed in this environment. Instead, we might be willing to write a letter asking the Administration to do something about it.”
  • The first two arguments highlight some of the reasons why congressional approval rating are near single digits, as they openly acknowledge that partisan politics come before good policy, including what may be best for children. The third type of response recognizes how polarized and partisan Congress has become but is an acceptance of defeat without even the attempt of trying.

However, it is the last argument that may be the most perplexing of all, as Congress is increasingly ceding its legislative power and policymaking authority to the executive branch of government. Consequently, some congressional offices are simply writing letters to government agency leaders asking them to take action or posting words of support or opposition about an issue on Facebook or Twitter. (Note to Congress: it’s the job of advocates to write letters and advocate, but it’s yours to write laws and legislate.)

When you give up on the idea of attempting to “legislate,” one result is that, legislative ideas, proposals and debate are less frequent. According to Derek Willis of the New York Times:

This House is on track to produce the lowest number of legislative proposals since the Clinton administration. Through mid-May, representatives introduced 18 percent fewer bills compared with the same point in the previous Congress…The number [of lawmakers] who have produced five or fewer pieces of legislation has jumped 81 percent.

But it gets worse. On the matter of our nation’s fiscal crisis and budget deficits, Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute does a masterful job of diagnosing the disease in his newly released book entitled Dead Men Ruling: How to Restore Fiscal Freedom and Rescue Our Future. Fortunately, unlike others that simply highlight the problem, Steuerle also points toward a pathway to move our nation forward.

On the issue of our growing national debt, Steuerle makes a strong case as to how presidents and legislators in Congress have conspired on a bipartisan basis in the past to enact a series of spending programs and tax cuts that, in conjunction with the most recent recession, have left the nation with a crushing debt and imposed a fiscal straightjacket that precludes efforts to address current and future problems, particularly for children.

According to Steuerle, in the forthcoming decade, with past legislative decisions that have protected Social Security and Medicare from any budget constraints and continuing efforts to enact tax cuts without budgetary offsets, the pressure to reduce spending falls most heavily “on the very types of programs on which children rely — domestic discretionary programs such as education that do not grow automatically.”

As a result, based on recent budget projections, Steuerle finds that:

Children’s programs will be among those hit the hardest. Children’s spending will fall sharply as a share of the economy, from 2.2 percent of GDP in 2012 to 1.8 percent in 2023, pushing spending on children below pre-recession levels. In 2017, Washington will start spending more on interest payments than children.

If we can agree on one thing on a bipartisan basis, it would seem that both parties can at least acknowledge that we reached a place of clearly misplaced priorities if we will soon be spending more money on interest payments on the federal debt than investing in our children.

At a recent commencement speech at Mount Holyoke College, Deborah Bial, Founder and President of Posse Foundation, was talking about issues such as climate change and the potential consequences it will place on the next generation. Her comments to Holyoke graduates apply perfectly well here as well. As she said, “The difficult truth is that I belong to a generation that has fundamentally failed you. It’s kind of like we are handing you the keys to a car we’ve completely wrecked and advising you on how best to care for it.”

As Steuerle concludes:

In essence, we have codified into the law the following rule for the young; they owe us every more when they become adults, and we owe them ever less while they remain children. . .They deserve better.

We must change course for our children but also for our nation’s future. As Ruby Takanishi with the New America Foundation points out, the book makes an important and “compelling case that a nation that does not invest in its children is a nation in decline.”

Fortunately, Steuerle identifies a pathway forward. He point to the fact that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that a decade or so of economic growth will generate about $1 trillion more each year in federal resources. While some of that will need to be dedicated to cutting the deficit, paying off interest on the debt, paying for obligations such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and paying for an array of tax cuts, the fact is that, “to govern is to choose.”

What is needed is a new vision of what is possible — rather than the current Capitol Hill capitulation to gridlock. According to Steuerle:

With the world, the nation, the economy and society changing at an ever-swifter pace, we have a budget not for a nation that is preparing for its future but rather one that is nostalgic for its past, a budget not for an ever-rising nation but for a declining one.

To address this crisis, Steuerle proposes a series of solutions that those concerned about our nation’s children or our nation’s future should think about and consider. For example, he proposes that federal budgets “display all sources of federal spending growth together, whether deriving from automatically growing programs or new legislation.” This, he argues, will help highlight how the president and Congress set priorities overall when, “at least implicitly, those choose to allow older priorities to overwhelm emerging needs.”

At First Focus Campaign for Children, this is a reason why we support the creation of a “Children’s Budget” so that both the Office of Management and Budget and CBO would be required to report on how the spending and tax policies that the Congress adopts and the President signs into law impact our nation’s children. Transparency helps but we also need a change in direction.

Consequently, rather than allowing investments in children or other priorities to continue to dwindle, Steuerle highlights other suggested structural and system changes that will allow us to pursue a new vision that includes such things as investments to combat child poverty, child abuse and neglect, infant mortality and childhood obesity. And, as he adds:

By shifting the budget toward investment in education, early childhood development and other priorities set by evidence of high potential impact, we would promote growth for both the nation and its people over the long term. Think of the twenty-first century as doing for the young what the twentieth did for the elderly, only with a focus this time on opportunity and potential….

For too long, the children’s advocacy community has focused on simply advocating for individual programs or policy areas that are important to children without bringing in focus the larger funding problems facing children. It is why some of the leading national children’s groups came together on a letter to Congress earlier this year highlighting that, after adjusting for inflation, federal funding dedicated to children this year is $2.1 billion below 2012 levels.

That letter from the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Federation of Teachers, Children’s Defense Fund, Children’s Health Fund, Child Welfare League of America, Easter Seals, First Focus Campaign for Children, MENTOR, MomsRising, National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, National Child Abuse Coalition, National Education Association, National Head Start Association, National Title I Association, Public Advocacy for Kids, Save the Children, Share Our Strength, School Based Health Alliance, United Way and YMCA of the USA adds:

Overall, investments in children have declined the past four years in a row and make up less than eight cents of every dollar spent by the federal government. After adjusting for inflation, discretionary investments for children are actually three percent below 2007 levels.

This is simply the wrong direction for our nation to be heading if we are concerned about our children and our future. Although the forces of inertia and the defenders of the status quo will not give way easily, we must build support for change.

Frankly, the stakes are too high and the cost of inaction is too great for us to fail.