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A historical perspective on the super committee

Kai Ryssdal Nov 21, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: More than most, the failure of the super committee is a story that cries out for context. A place in history, if you will.

So we’ve called a history professor. David Kennedy teaches history at Stanford University. Good to have you here.

David Kennedy: Glad to be here.

Ryssdal: This notion of our elected representatives, in essence, throwing up their hands and saying, ‘Yeah, we can’t do this,’ it seems kind of remarkable. Have we ever been here before? Has this ever happened?

Kennedy: Well you know, I think it’s beyond disappointing. I think maybe a word like “disgusting” might be more appropriate. And I’m reminded that we’re in the presence here of some of the very worst defects of our constitutional system. It came to mind this morning as I was reading the newspaper accounts of this; it recollected Woodrow Wilson’s great work written in the 1880s when he was still a graduate student at Johns Hopkins called “Congressional Government.” And he identified many defects, but two in particular that are so obvious today. He said, first of all, there is just an enormous opacity and lack of transparency in the way that Congress does its business. And secondly, he said, this was the graver, much more serious matter in his view, that the way that Congress conducts its business, there’s no accountability. That there’s 535 different people and they’re responsible to different constituencies, and it’s very rare when you can get a majority of those people to really take the national responsibility seriously rather than their parochial representative responsibilities.

Ryssdal: Well then, why are people surprised or at least feigning surprise that this happened?

Kennedy: Well, I don’t know. I, for one, am not surprised. I think this was kind of predictable when the budget deal was worked out several weeks back, that this is, to use the phrase that’s now become so common: kicking the can down the road. I guess we’re going to kick it again.

Ryssdal: But I mean, we assumed best intentions, right? We all said, ‘OK, they got a budget deal. They’re going to go,’ and we assumed that they would make an honest effort to try and work things out. Were we just wrong?

Kennedy: Yeah, I think people who assumed that were wrong, to be honest. We’ve come to a stage in this long partisan standoff; this is just the latest episode, that has bled any faith in the Congress from this citizen, that’s for sure.

Ryssdal: Let me ask you this, then: Can, first of all the economy and also our political system, take 12 more months of this? Because the line today is ‘we’ll fix it after the election’?

Kennedy: We remain a resilient society. I suppose if we survived things like the Great Depression and World War II and 9/11 and three wars in the last decade, we can probably muddle through this. But in the meantime, we’re doing tremendous damage, not just to our own economy and society, but to the global economy. And add the uncertainty that we’re creating and perpetuating to what the Europeans are adding to the equation, and you’ve got a formula for, I think, a really sizable catastrophe.

Ryssdal: Yeah one wonders if the Europeans are sitting there, sort of rubbing their hands and saying, ‘Oh god, finally we’re off the front pages.’

Kennedy: Well, I don’t know if they’re off the front pages. But at least the two countries that have recently gone through the ringer — Greece and Italy — have reached for what the newspapers now call a ‘technocratic solution.’ That kind of thing’s not really available to us. It’s not in our culture, our tradition. When Tom Friedman says, for example, ‘If we can only be China for a day, it’d solve all these problems from the top-down and then get on with business,’ now that’s a fantasy. We’re not that kind of political culture; we don’t have those kinds of political institutions.

Ryssdal: But then what happens? Because this can’t go on.

Kennedy: Well, what’s the old cliche? If things aren’t sustainable, they won’t be sustained. So yeah, there’s got to be some kind of resolution here at some point, but we may pay an awfully big price for an even greater catastrophe before we finally muddle our way through to a solution.

Ryssdal: David Kennedy is a professor of history at Stanford University. Good to talk to you again.

Kennedy: Good to talk with you, Kai.

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