Demosclerosisby delmeyer on 02/06/2020 8:16 PM
Government’s End: Why Washington Stopped Working
It is April 10, 1992. Four U. S. senators, two Democrats and two Republicans, have marched to the Senate floor with a brave and foolhardy proposal. They are going to take a stab at curtailing federal entitlement spending.
Entitlements are the huge check-writing programs whose benefits are guaranteed by law. Social Security, Medicare, farm subsidies, veteran payments, welfare, food stamps, student aid, and many more. Most of these are not little “special interest” programs benefiting the few at the expense of the broad public. Rather, they are among the most popular programs the government runs, distributing Washington’s bounty to millions of Americans and accounting for roughly a sixth of all personal income.
The middle class loves entitlement programs, which is precisely why they are so difficult to control. For the last several decades, they have been eating the federal government alive. Entitlements account for fully three-quarters of all federal domestic appending, and the proportion is steadily rising. By way of discipline, what the gang of four have in mind is an overall limit on the growth of entitlement spending. Bowing to the inevitable, they have exempted SS, which is viewed as too popular to touch. Other entitlement programs will collectively grow under their plan, but not as rapidly as in the past. “We do not seek to end entitlements or even to reduce them,” Charles Robb, a Democrat from Virginia, tells the Senate. “We do, however, believe that it is necessary to restrain their growth. This is, first and foremost, what this amendment does.”
Actually, that’s not all it does. It also lights up the civil-defense network of every lobby in Washington. Indeed, well before the proposal reaches the Senate floor, the interest groups are sounding alarms and manning battle stations. Within two hours of the four senators’ first detailed discussion of their proposal, their offices are receiving telegrams, says New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici, “ from all over the country, saying that this is going to hurt a veterans’ group, this is going to hurt people on welfare, this is going to hurt seniors on Medicare. Bill Hoagland, an aide to Domenici, later recalled, “We were inundated. Just about every interest group you can think of was strongly opposed. It was very dramatic, how quickly they all came to the defense.”
The American Association of Retired Persons calls the proposal a “direct attack.” The National Council of Senior Citizens deems it “outrageous.” Children’s Defense Fund “unacceptable.” Committee for educational funding: “unconscionable.” Food Research and Action Center: ‘devastating.” Etc. Et. Al.
On the Senate floor, opponents of the spending cap move to exempt disabled veterans. This is a way to kill the cap without actually voting to kill it. All the other organizations exempted themselves also.
Then the vote will allow senators to go home and boast about “saving” a program. Which in turn allows each to boast to its membership, “See, how badly you need us!”
This then demonstrates the forces that are petrifying government. The key words “are petrifying”—not “have petrified.” Demosclerosis—government’s progressive loss of the ability to adapt—it is a gradual but continuing process. It’s rather like arteriosclerosis. It can only respond to a long-term change in behavior. Also like arteriosclerosis, Demosclerosis gets only worse if it is ignored.
Year after year, the American public forms more interest groups, making more demands on government – until gradually government itself has calcified. The problem is called “Demosclerosis,” and, as Rauch reveals, the culprit is us, all of us.
Jonathan Rauch: Times Books, 1995 – 277 pages
Jonathan Rauch is the author of six books and many articles on public policy, culture, and government.
He is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and recipient of the 2005 National Magazine Award,
the magazine industry’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize.
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