Battleland

A Congressional Insider on Why the U.S. Political System Is Broke

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Mike Lofgren came to Washington to work on Capitol Hill 30 years ago, when Ronald Reagan was rebuilding America’s “hollow military” after its Vietnam hangover, and the Cold War was in its final throes – although we didn’t know it yet. He spent 28 years working for Congress, the last 16 as a senior analyst on the House and Senate budget committees, where he tried to help keep the pistons and crankshafts of national defense, among other things, running smoothly.

His new bookThe Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted – is a keen but depressing peek behind congressional bunting and cloakroom doors. While he is an equal-opportunity critic of both political parties, his Republican background gives his slaps at the GOP added sting. He chatted with Battleland via email over the weekend:

Why did you write The Party Is Over?

First, let me dispel one potential canard: I am not a “disgruntled former employee.” I enjoyed my day job, which was federal budgeting. And I revered the Founders’ idea of Congress, which is the first institution of government outlined in the Constitution.

But I had become alarmed that my party, the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eisenhower, had ceased to believe in the proper governance of the world’s greatest economic and military power. The party preferred gridlock and discrediting the institutions of government in a perpetual campaign of fake populism.

The GOP’s ransoming the nation’s sovereign credit rating in order to ram through their political agenda was the final straw that made me write the book. Even Ronald Reagan, the present-day Republican icon, had pleaded with Congress in the 1980s to give him a debt limit extension bill without extraneous provisions or gimmicks. The GOP has now become a rigid, ideological cult rather than a traditional, broad-based political party.

Who has enabled this state of affairs?

The enablers are the modern Democratic Party, or most of it. In the early 1990s, after three straight presidential election defeats, the Democratic Leadership Council-types took over the party and oriented it to the needs of Wall Street.

Hence the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the deregulation of derivatives trading on Clinton’s watch – actions which in some measure contributed to the asset bubble and consequent financial meltdown.

In terms of military spending and reckless foreign intervention, their attitude is “me too, but slightly less.” They act in a kind of synergy with the Republicans to exacerbate our problems.

Lofgren

What is the one thing you learned during your Capitol Hill career that outsiders would be surprised to learn?

A lot of politicians don’t want substantive solutions, they want partisan issues.

Example: my former boss, Senator Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a reasonable guy who actually wanted real solutions to our fiscal problems, co-authored a bill with Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) to create a panel to propose long-term deficit reduction.

The panel’s recommendations would get an up-or-down vote in Congress. Everybody liked the idea in the abstract, so it gained many Senate co-sponsorships.

Yet when the Obama administration signaled its support, several Republican senators, including minority leader Mitch McConnell, suddenly withdrew their support. When the bill came to a vote in the Senate to override McConnell’s filibuster, it failed by a small margin.

In other words, it was a good idea until the president of the United States got on board. This is the kind of petty childishness that makes our Congress a laughing stock.

How much, if at all, does home-district pork inflate the defense budget? Not legitimate home-district defense spending, but that layer of fat atop the legitimate defense spending that would be carved away if a computer were drafting a defense budget without taking local politics into account?

Many commentators on military budgets make a lot of noise about congressional “earmarks,” which probably carve out something like single-digit billions within the cost of the budget each year. Certainly, many of those earmarks are egregious and unnecessary. But they are not the root of the problem.

If some congressman adds a $1-million earmark, yes, that may be a problem, but what makes the multiple-hundred billion-dollar wish list of the military services sacrosanct? After all, they are simply trying to jack up their individual budgets.

And in any case, weapon systems proposed by the Pentagon are loaded with special-interest pork: for one thing, the military is careful to franchise subcontracts of weapons to as many congressional districts as possible, thus assuring support on the Hill. That is a very inefficient system.

For a non-military example, look at the production problems of the Boeing 787 airliner: getting the plane’s parts to fit together properly was a problem because in order to get as many “constituents” – meaning countries willing to buy the plane – as possible, Boeing had subcontracted production all over the world. Who knows how many billions in inefficiencies we have to pay because of DOD’s system of political subcontracting?

If politicians are to blame, is each party equally culpable?

The media like to play the false equivalence, “equally culpable” game. This is a subset of the media’s fake objectivity: “Is the earth round or flat? We’ll discuss the controversy after the break!”

I have already called the Democrats enablers, and this is what they are because of their need to cater to corporate donors. It is also a result of their own pusillanimity. But at least they take a stab at governing.

The GOP is all into tearing down the institutions of government (or auctioning them off to corporate contributors – remember Halliburton? The U.S. Army can’t even feed itself anymore, even though its logistics budget is going through the roof).

The Democrats are distinctly sub-mediocre, but they can’t match the kind of lunacy you see from [lawmakers like] a Louie Gohmert, or a Michele Bachmann, or an Allen West, or a Joe Walsh in the GOP. And, no, they are not powerless back-benchers; their faction determines the circumstances under which House majority leader Eric Cantor undercuts the Speaker of the House.

Currently, military spending goes through one set of committees on the Hill, and foreign-affairs spending – the State Department, foreign aid, etc. – goes through another. Is this a problem? If it is, can it ever be solved so long as this dual structure exists?

It certainly leads to overlap and inefficiency. But if it were consolidated in a single committee – which would almost of necessity be the defense committee, simply because of its enormous gravitational pull – how would the oversight be improved?

The House and Senate defense committees are already in the tank for the contractors and their campaign contributions. Do you think they would give increased scrutiny to Foreign Military Sales, which are currently handled by the foreign affairs committees? Separation of powers is inherent in the system that Madison and the other Founders created, and I would be leery of changing that convention.

How potent a weapon is it on Capitol Hill to be labeled as “soft on defense”?

That was the slogan that wounded the Democrats in 1972 – never mind that in World War II, McGovern had been a B-24 pilot who braved enemy flak and won the Distinguished Flying Cross, while Nixon was a bureaucrat at the Office of Price Administration who later won poker games in a Navy supply outfit that was well away from combat.

Somehow, the Democrats have been traumatized ever since, although they shouldn’t be: a May 2012 survey by the Stimson Center, the Program for Public Consultation, and the Center for Public Integrity found that 76% of the public favored cutting military spending.

In any case, why does “strong on defense” equate with throwing money at contractors? And why does “strong on defense” equate with reckless military misadventure that kills and maims our young people and drains our treasury? After nearly a dozen years of war, the public mood is changing; the Democrats just haven’t caught up with it, while the GOP is still living out its chickenhawk fantasies.

If you were God and could change one thing about how the nation defends itself, what would it be?

We need to dump forthwith the silly notion of American Exceptionalism: that the country is somehow exempt from the laws of physics, not to mention the law of unintended consequences.

This is what leads to our reckless interventionism. No, we are not smart enough to solve the four-millennia old problems of the Middle East with our healing touch (albeit at the barrel of a gun).

Including debt service, our misadventure in Iraq cost us $1 trillion, and what did we get from it? Zip, nada, zilch.

Our country has a $15 trillion debt, a failing infrastructure, and economic competitiveness problems.

Squandering our resources by pursuing the illusion of global military hegemony will simply send us down the dusty and corpse-strewn road of the Spanish Empire of Philip II, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union.

Our real work is at home: peace, reform, and reconstruction.

31 comments
geral sosbee
geral sosbee

BROKE? Try INHUMANELY  MURDEROUS.

"You must contrive for your future Rulers another and a better life than that of a Ruler, and then you may have a well ordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life." Plato, The Republic. Congress assists in fbi/cia world inhumane amp; murderous domination  http://vancouver.mediacoop.ca/... and therefore each member of Congress must answer to the charge of murder, forced suicide and other felonies:  link to italy.indymedia.org  link to sosbeevfbi.ning.com  http://sosbeevfbi.ning.com/pro...  http://www.boell.org/downloads...  http://portland.indymedia.org/...  http://barbarahartwellvscia.bl......  http://www.sosbeevfbi.com/prom... fbi operative/psychopath Upton continues to assault Sosbee on line, suggesting that the torture and violent provocations against Sosbee are not happening and that he represents a threat:  http://phillyimc.org/en/right-... " Get help, gerbil, you are a danger to yourself and maybe even others, with your paranoid delusional mental disorder."  http://www.phillyimc.org/en/in...

DarylLloydDavis
DarylLloydDavis

The underlying problem is that we accept the pretense that an elected few make better decisions than our collective wisdom--we who vote in the elected few. When this our ship of state begins to tilt and slowly go down, consider a system without the Congress:

http://whatdirectdemocracymigh...

mikekrohde
mikekrohde

who is this guy? how did he survive so many years working in congress? he makes sense and calls a spade a spade. he should be speaker for a week. 

GreenMarine
GreenMarine

I have a front row seat to the sausage-making that is defense spending and I could not agree more with Mr. Lofgren!

If citizens wish to learn more about the weakness of the process of defense spending (how it works in practice, not in theory), they should study up about the $1 trillion f-35 JSF program. That's right, we've allocated more cash to the development of ONE AIRFRAME than we spent in the entire Iraq War. Crony jobs associated with JSF are located in no fewer than 47 states! Pass the pork and the ammunition!

TeflonPalin
TeflonPalin

Poor guy will be blasted by the right because he dared to blame them for anything.  They refuse to look at themselves with any sort of objectivity. Fox News will be dragging him through the mud for the next few days.

Varoujan Tourian
Varoujan Tourian

The ‘gullibility’ of US gentiles (Jew for all leprous others) is amazing especially when Jews Boehner, E Kantor, M McConnell, P Ryan and 12 tribes speak for ‘the American people’. Since FDR’S time, ALL US presidents, bar none, were ‘Christianist’ converts from Judaism, married to Jewesses or had Jew blood! I will list a few of the myths Jews have taught ‘Pavlov’ Americans. Jews can demonize all others: Arabs, M.E Christians, Moslems, Easterners etc, but when others answer, they are ‘anti-Semites’. The daily holocausts that chosen Israel commits are O.K to keep the Palestinians under control… for the past 64 years, with US complicity!! Racist CHOSEN of Wail Str care deeply about US Gentiles! So, the Jew-run US Imperial Military and its comical branches of government will give the Shylocks all our tax money and these psychopaths will create jobs for US amp; NOT outsource them where labour is cheaper and they can legally avoid paying US taxes!! But GENTILES will pay taxes even for breathing! Who cares if we are the most violent society and the least happy so long as we are (correction: were) the most wasteful!

     Democrats are in on the game, but they are less odious, except for the Blue Dog ones (should they not be called Blue BITCH)! The God-Chosen Jews (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Murdock, Bronfman amp; 12 tribes) know if you repeat a lie often, people will believe it. Jews are trustworthy and decent as 305 million swindled Americans who lost their life savings and wealth attest to!! So will the incredibly large 6 million incarcerated, paroled or ankle-bracelet wearers! Jews have even hoodwinked Americans into giving up their civil rights with the misnomered ‘Patriot Act’. I could list 110 abuses of this Jew-run system. Congrats: US is well done! Was Genocide-Committing Chosen Israel worth it?

     Don’t worry: our Jew-run government will, as usual, throw more money at the problem of 60% divorce rate!! It is only ‘pessimists’ who decry what the racist CHOSEN have done to US Gentiles: depletion-pollution-poisoning of natural resources, crumbling super and infra structures, insurmountable debts here amp; abroad, severe devaluation of the dollar, joblessness, dilapidated bridges-roads-installations, insecurity, cutbacks in essential services etc, etc!! Jews have traditionally asked for persecution because they always claimed to be ‘superior’: if you believe you were mistreated, you will raise your next generation to become even more neurotic and psychotic! WAKE UP, AMERICA! US-Jews even stole the Arab Christian religion from the East. What they need to do is to live by their peaceful and wise precepts!

YupYup
YupYup

What is this, the 15th book in the past 6 months about how our political system is failing?  Seems pretty obvious to me that book sales are trending.

In any case, however popular it may be to point fingers and then conclude that "we're screwed," it's not exactly helping any real change materialize.  All anyone's going to do is read another of these stories about how "the other side" sucks, skim over the part about how "their side" sucks, and then sit smugly in their chairs confident that they were right all along.

I don't know what it takes anymore, I honestly don't.  People vote for people/things that are in direct contradiction to their best interests.  The media isn't effective at anything other than wasting people's time.  Even the Internet -- the game changer -- trivializes the function of open discussion by making it easy for people to compartmentalize issues and stay within walled gardens of like-minded people. 

When does this end? When do we actually do something to start solving problems?

Here's an idea: instead of selling a book to pad your reputation and bank account, why don't you use your experience/influence to begin "the process" and push things in a positive direction?

Shoshone Creek
Shoshone Creek

When we elect lunatics like Ron Paul and his son to the US Congress.....no wonder things are broken and the congress moves even further to the right and in the totally wrong direction!

Libertarianism is an ideology that not only has NEVER solved a single problem and never will, it is an ideology that is destroying America!  The Austrian people virtually ran their Libertarian Economist right out of their country....they were smart enough to completely reject their voo doo beliefs and fascism.  Let's hope the American people wake up and votes every Republican out of office in 2012 and 2014!...especially the cracker heads like Ron Paul!

Doc3
Doc3

The problem is that we have elected members of the New Democratci Progressive Union Soicialist Communist Party for the last 90 years who have broken the Constitution, passesd massive unfunded entitlements and spent the Nation into bankruptcy. Shoshone take the big red shoes off and do some reading. Dr. Paul is in line with those crazy old fools that are called the Framers of our Constitution. If you had read the article there is now a Federslist Government formed by Rio Repulicans and Democrats that have ruined the Nation by massive spending. Dr. Paul and the Austrian economists are the only chance the People have. Otherwise it will be business as usual. More wars, more borrowing to fund the wars, more bail-outs, more creation of fiat dollars.

What you called the Libitarian movement worked well for this Nation up to about 1910.

Rob Kirton
Rob Kirton

I only observe US politics from a distance and realise that words have different meanings between the UK and US.  However claiming libertarians are fascists is a little like calling black to be white.

Think of left<->right and libertarian<->authoritarian.Fascists when in power, certainly have a proven track record of big government amp; authoritarian approach.If you want every Republican out of office, I guess you don't like what the other guy has to say and don't want to have to deal with them.  Be careful what you're asking for - It sounds like a fascist state.

From the little I see / know, I don't like the look of current day Republicans; and Ron Paul seems to be "interesting" though to me less threatening than the fundamentalist Christian lobby.

Good luck.  Every country where there is a free vote, tends to get the government it deserves.

BigRedEO
BigRedEO

I agree with a lot of what he has to say, but he is pushing a lie that Clinton is the one who repealed the Glass-Steagall act that caused the Wall Street meltdown.  The legislation that repealed that act was written by Republican Senator Phil Gramm, who, along with the Republican-led Congress told Clinton to sign their legislation or they were going to override it with a veto anyway.  That falls squarely on the shoulders of the GOP congress of the late '90s.

Kir (Politicoid)
Kir (Politicoid)

Doesn't seem like he went quite far enough. The real issue is that these two parties are really one massive party of big government authoritarian elitists.

esotericknowledge
esotericknowledge

LOL, This guy has no idea what is going on in the world. Democrats are the enablers?  The Democrats are friends with corporations?  LOL.  Jesus Christ, what a lie!  The deregulation was pushed by Republicans during the Clinton Administration!  Which party wants laissez faire capitalism?  What propaganda this guy is pushing!  Complete nonsense to anyone who reads for 5 minutes!  Haha.  Wake up you morons, it's not both parties, it's just one causing the problems in the world.

mikekrohde
mikekrohde

democrats are guilty of desertion. they could stop republican antics if they pay attention and hold their feet to the fire. they are blatantly the party of the rich, they don't even try to hide it anymore. they say whatever they need to say, even though economically, it is all a big lie told every day. they are 21st century american aristocrats, the ruling class in gb we revolted against. now we have our own.

Bubba Bang
Bubba Bang

Just take a look at Obama's cabinet and advisors and you can see how wall street is embedded in the Dem party.. Also, the Gramm-leach bill (dismantle of Glasse-Steagall) was YES voted for by over 3/4 of Dems in the republican controlled congress, and then signed by (D) President Clinton. Today's Dems pander to their base (as do the repubs) but carry out their own agenda while begging for corporate donations to secure their re-election campaigns, which will get worse with Citizen's United. Then you can look at TARP, and Health Care reform (super majority, and still NOTHING but huge hand outs to Big Pharma amp; Insurance Companies). Stop kidding yourself.....Both parties eat out of the same trough.

Mack Argument
Mack Argument

He's not wrong. Both sides are absolutely in bed with Wall Street, just look at the votes for TARP.

Mike Melnyk
Mike Melnyk

Right. 

Both parties are beholden to Wall Street, thus significant re-regulation and reform of institutional investment firms is unlikely to happen anytime soon.  Regulating bank and credit card fees is cosmetic reform at best. What we really need is "too-big-to-fail" regulation that prevents the kind of risk-taking that nearly sent us into a depression 5 years ago. I don't see this coming from either party anytime soon.

JerickBraa
JerickBraa

Quit towing the line, open your eyes, and shut up.  You are a child to believe democrats are any different then republicans. It takes two to tango in our system.

That you can sit there and honestly believe its one party and not the other just blows my mind. Absolutely blows it. Like 12 gauge to the back of my mouth, toe on the trigger, blows it out the back of my skull.

HAS EITHER PARTY ever had enough representatives to push through any legislation without additional support? No. Must mean they are working together.

And if the Democrats are so much better then the Republicans, why are they continuing to push non-issues during the election cycle? Its all a game! Ever see the Wizard of OZ? Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, just look at the pretty lights and fog. BOTH parties continue to deflect and distract while helping their corporate and lobbyist interests sell our country piecemeal to foreigners and the elite.

Diana Bonitz
Diana Bonitz

Need to get rid of Boehner ,Cantor ,Mc Conell,Paul Ryan they signed a pleadge the day President Obama was sworn in to make him a one term President .  There was a few more present for that secret meeting like Gingrich , Tom Coburn from Oklahoma ... This election is very important its a big choice ... I myself dont want to see medicare go to a voucher system I think the ACA is the answer .. Its the same bill that was passed by Romney .. Oklahoma blocked the ACA and let me tell you insurance here is outrages $460.00 a month pluse no pre existing cond and there is caps .  (Thats my truck note) then you have a $5,000 deductable .. Mary Fallin our so called Gov. wouldnt even greet the President when he came hear she flew off to mexico . 

anonguest7619
anonguest7619

I tend to think of Congress as an overindulgent father and the military as a teenage daughter he neglects. Rather than paying attention to her wants and needs and, at times, meting out discipline when needed, Congress chooses to throw money at her and tell her how wonderful she is. And here we are, 10 years later, wondering why she is throwing temper tantrums all the time. Time to man up, daddy, and lay down the law.

GreenMarine
GreenMarine

That is sometimes the problem. However, it is also often the reverse.

Currently, the Air Force rates itself as having 40% excess infrastructure, eg. too many bases, too much money spent keeping up excess infrastructure.

How did it get so bad? Congressional interference overrules military planning, every time. No Congressman will willingly let his district lose the cash cow that is a military base. Witness the recent discontent about closing the air base in Mansfield, Ohio...

Mike Melnyk
Mike Melnyk

Agreed. When will Americans learn that you can support the military but be against the military industrial complex and their shills in Congress?

jay1122
jay1122

Totally agree with Mr. Lofgren.  

Mitch McConnell and Eric Canter are two of the major enablers of the current state of congress.  I mean McConnell is the one that said defecting President Obama is his number 1 priority.  #1?  Not jobs or helping the economy or feeding the poor or end the wars?  This is why congress is broken.

Newone
Newone

Both parties in Congress and Senate are cults they do not like each other, that's why we need another cult to divide. Also need 2 term no more, if they cannot get what they want done in eight years too bad, that the other person take over.

Kir (Politicoid)
Kir (Politicoid)

That's actually somewhat false. They are indeed cults, but the same cult. Their surfaces appear very different but it's amazing how similar they are once you look below that surface.

Tom Williams
Tom Williams

Eight years?

You know Senate terms are 6 (so 12 years for 2 terms) and House terms are 2 (so 4 years for 2 terms).

RobotPirateNinja
RobotPirateNinja

No, he/she didn't know that. So one should put their advice in the bucket with others who don't even have a basic understanding of what the article said.

Jason
Jason

Maybe it was supposed to be ironic? I hope.

gcaver
gcaver

Broke?  Really?  Have we lost all touch with the English language?

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