After the sharp-elbowed politics of the past year’s election, the year started with hope that lawmakers and the White House would be able to finally tackle the profound and structural problems facing the United States.
The list is long. Some interpreted the Obama administration’s victory as a mandate to tackle historic problems like the debt or reforming immigration. Month by month, however, 2013 is proving to be no different than any other year in recent political history. There are a bevy of scandals at hand, constituting an incongruent sweep of subjects covering everything from the rights of reporters to work without government surveillance, embassy security in hot zones like Libya, abhorrent sexual abuse within the armed forces and the abuse of federal investigatory powers into political groups.
All the while, America’s competitiveness keeps taking blow after blow. Congress and the White House run headlong willingly into political skirmishes over these issues while ignoring the big, strategic challenges that will shape America’s security and prosperity well into the 21st Century. If they keep doing so, the ability to credibly improve American competitiveness by changing immigration laws, reforming education, reducing the national debt or shoring up the defense industrial base, will continue to deteriorate. None of that will be possible without compromise and competency – both frighteningly scarce right now.
As David Ignatius in the Washington Post wrote in an op-ed Thursday, the government can’t seem to get out of its own way. “The crippling problem in Washington these days isn’t any organized conspiracy against conservatives, journalists or anyone else,” he wrote. “Rather, it’s a federal establishment that’s increasingly paralyzed because of poor management and political second-guessing.” See the Washington Post op-ed.
It does not have to be this way. By organizing around the simple notion that a functional political system is the bedrock of American strength and prosperity, lawmakers have a chance to step back from another grueling campaign of partisan attrition this summer. American competitiveness is already slipping, dragged down in part by the legislative and regulatory turmoil that can be attributed to this dysfunction. Consider that Wall Street has already frowned upon political dysfunction before when America’s debt rating was downgraded in 2011. Credit ratings agencies will do so again if this continues. America’s financial system cannot afford that, not can our allies and creditors.
Each scandal dominating the media is connected to larger issues that need immediate attention. They are not distractions, but symptoms. Embassy security is tied to a larger question of the role of the military and the State Department in post-conflict environment. The question over the future of the armed forces after more than a decade of long deployments and counterinsurgency campaigns is tied to the sexual abuse cases, as well as suicides, getting increasing attention. The unprecedented surveillance of Associated Press journalists and the aggressive IRS investigation of Tea Party groups leads to fundamental examination of the appropriate size, and expected competency, of our government’s most sensitive functions: taxation and the national defense.
The key is to focus on taking action not for the advancement of one political party or another, but for the country. It is not too late to change course in Washington, but as the scandal-driven headlines reveal, time is running out.
Check out ASP’s White Paper on American Competitiveness that discusses these issues further: