After hearing Leon Panetta speak recently at the Oakland Speakers Series, I think his likeness should be added to Mount Rushmore. It's hard to imagine a former congressman who has been called to such a distinguished trajectory through Washington's corridors of power.
After being director of the Office of Management and Budget, he went on to become chief of staff in the Clinton White House. He described the staff he inherited as being "like a grammar school soccer team where all the kids just go for the ball and nobody knows what they're supposed to do." After herding those cats successfully, he went on to become head of the CIA and then secretary of defense.
Panetta got really heated when talking about the failure of elected officials to actually lead anymore. When he was a congressman from Monterey, he said that he had to make tough decisions that didn't always sit well with his constituents, but he did it because it was his obligation as a leader.
Today, more than ever, the operating principle in Washington is to take the path of minimum regret, which is one of antagonizing the fewest number of voters. The object is one of getting re-elected rather than anything having to do with what we would consider to be leadership.
Take the farm bill that was just passed earlier this year. For its next five-year period, it will cost us $1 trillion in subsidies -- most of which go to large corporate farms that have headquarters in major cities and that often have operations in more than one state.
Paul Ryan, to his credit, had originally proposed a $750,000 annual limit to any single recipient, but he was slapped down by his colleagues. The food stamp program has been separated from the farm subsidy bill, so now those benefits can be reduced without affecting the feeding trough for Midwestern farmers.
As Nancy Pelosi put it when she apologized for showing up late for a Warren Buffett speech, "we were busy taking food from the mouths of babies."
Moreover, the subsidized ethanol hoax has us using more energy to grow corn than the savings created by mixing the biofuel into gas. "Stuck on stupid" is how the police refer to most people who commit crimes, but the term would apply these days to the collective conscience of our politicians. Even the IRS, thanks to the sequester, has had its ranks cut like everyone else. One would think that we would make an exception for the one branch of government that generates something like 5 dollars in otherwise unpaid taxes for every dollar we spend on that agency.
We shouldn't harbor any false expectations that anything will change soon. The New York Times last week had an article headlined, "A Dirty Secret," which described the fact that Republicans don't really want to cut entitlements and Democrats don't really want to raise taxes. The reality for Republicans is that old people all vote and even many tea party members are old enough to be benefiting from Social Security and Medicare. GOP members probably recall the photo of the guy at a tea party rally holding the sign saying "Keep the Government out of My Medicare."
As for Democrats, a lot of their campaign contributions come from wealthy people in California and New York who don't want to see any reduction in the mortgage interest deduction on first and second homes -- or similar deductions for state income taxes or charitable donations. In other words, "no new taxes."
So we have a stalemate with no end in sight, but it may not matter in our everyday lives. What will happen is that the deficit will be steadily shrinking thanks to an improving economy and higher tax revenues from both increased personal incomes and corporate profits. Congressional leaders will just get to continue the political theater that we've had to endure for the past year. But, like Italy for decades, we may learn that we don't really need a functioning government until some problem gets down to the wire -- like Social Security in 2030.
Meanwhile, I love Panetta's grammar school soccer team analogy. It certainly applies to Congress, where every grandstanding politician is going for the ball instead of working as a team to get it into the goal. If we're lucky, it won't matter all that much.