Gridlock is supposed to stop the government from acting. That’s what Republicans are hoping will happen, for instance, if they prevent the administration from ever confirming a director for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But often, that’s not quite what gridlock does. Like a car forced to take side streets, gridlock can reroute government action, force it to get where it’s going less efficiently, with more waste, and more chance of accidents. Take, for instance, the directorless Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Josh Boak has a great story today explaining that, since the agency can’t make rules without a director, “the bureau most likely will set policy by conducting investigations.” He quotes a report by Jaret Seiberg, an analyst for the brokerage firm MF Global, in which Seiberg explains that “the ability of the CFPB to investigate financial firms and then bring enforcement actions for violating existing laws is the most potent weapon the agency has absent a director. It is also one that will garner politically attractive headlines.”
That’s not good for banks. Jeremiah Buckley, a former Republican staff director on the Senate Banking Committee, tells Boak that “it’s very hard to fight an enforcement action. Usually, financial firms with their reputations on the line will settle.”
Ezra’s made references to this phenomenon before, and I think he’s right on. Stalling on Warren as head of the CFPB isn’t good for consumers and isn’t good for banks, but it is good for Republicans in Congress. And it’s happening everwhere. Try cap-and-trade: carbon-producing industries don’t want the EPA regulating carbon in a command-and-control fashion, and it’d be less effective environmentally than cap-and-trade (or, better, a straight up carbon tax). But again, killing cap-and-trade was good for certain members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.
It’s a pretty messed up set of incentives. I don’t blame Republicans for throwing their bodies in front of Warren or cap-and-trade – it really is in their best interests to stymie the Dems at every turn, because if they can make the Dems look weak and ineffectual, they’ll have a greater chance of returning to power. And it worked – look at the 2010 midterms. Look at David Brooks’ column from earlier this week. He complains,
Republican politicians don’t design policies to meet specific needs, or even to help their own working-class voters. They use policies as signaling devices — as ways to reassure the base that they are 100 percent orthodox and rigidly loyal. Republicans have taken a pragmatic policy proposal from 1980 and sanctified it as their core purity test for 2012.
As for the Democrats, they offer practically nothing.
It’s not that the Dems don’t offer anything, it’s that they can’t get anything done. But it’s hard to distinguish the two – apparently, even for a professional pundit who’s paid to pay attention to these things.
When it’s actually the interest of one party to let the world burn, there’s only so much blame you can lay on them – they’re just playing by the rules of the game, and playing to win. At some point you need to wonder if the rules themselves need to change. Sadly, attempts to change the rules have to overcome the same fucked up incentives that necessitate the change in the first place.