UT-Austin professor of government Sean Theriault makes an important point about the debt ceiling miasma: this is happening because of political audiences, i.e. voters:
In 2005, I published a book called "The Power of the People." In it, I made the simple argument that, contrary to the opinion of a growing number of political pundits, members of Congress are still -- as they have always been -- responsive to their constituents. ...
The general election brought us race after race in which these tea party candidates were running against moderate Democrats, the so-called "Blue Dogs." Some of these Blue Dogs fought against Obama's health care plan. Others fought against cap-and-trade environmental legislation. In fighting these plans, the Blue Dogs frequently made them more moderate.
It didn't matter how hard they fought these plans or that they voted against them because, in November, their constituents voted them out of office. Why? Simply for being Democrats. And because of those decisions in November, the Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives now has 60 members -- 60 automatic votes against any type of compromise to preserve the full faith and credit of the United States.
The problem with our deficit crisis today is that the message the voters sent -- and that the winning candidates heard -- was "never compromise, never surrender." We may need such a mentality on the battlefield, but we cannot have such a mentality in politics. Politics, after all, is the art of compromise.
During the Krugman/Crooked Timber fiasco a few months back I tried to make the case that the voters really do play a role in the way politicians act. It's not just elites in the media or business that influence legislators. On this issue all of those groups are on the same side. The Very Serious People universally want a deal done. The rentier class is not interested in a debt default or downgrade, and don't particularly care how it's avoided. And yet here we are. Why? The best explanation has to be that the representatives care about political survival, and their constituents want them to hold the line. For the Republicans, especially those in districts vulnerable to Tea Party mobilization, this means tying a deal to deficit reduction that includes no new tax revenues. And Boehner couldn't unite his own party behind any moderate version of that. McConnell's attempted punt, which would put all of the political heat on Obama, similarly failed. McCain is now calling conservatives in his own party "foolish", "deceiving", and "bizarro". But the Tea Party isn't interested interested in the merely feasible. For the Democrats, it means opposing entitlement reform and especially a balanced budget amendment. This is why Obama went on national television practically begging voters to contact their congresspeople, and then spammed the internet with literally dozens of Tweets passing on the handles of representatives to his millions of followers.
There are a lot of political issues where politics is conducted mainly behind closed doors. The video below describing the experience of Dodd-Frank is one of them. Highly-technical policies are especially prone to "quiet politics". But high-profile political issues like the debt ceiling/deficit battle are anything but quiet, and voters find it fairly easy to take sides. That doesn't mean that voters are perfectly informed -- it seems many have broken the debate down to a more spending/less spending false choice -- but they don't have to be to put a lot of pressure on their representatives.
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