The Extraordinary Smallness of Washington

Institutional shrinkage marks the politics and governing of the Bush-Obama era.

President Obama is shrinking before our eyes. Squint and you might see his rivals running Congress: itsy-bitsy John Boehner and minute Mitch McConnell. And here come the judges, torturing a typo.

This is an era of titanic challenges and tiny politics. On issue after issue, the Republican and Democratic parties preen and pose but ultimately duck their responsibilities to solve the transcendent problems of our times.

On immigration, we need durable new rules that give 11 million illegal immigrants some form of legalization without punishing those who followed the old rules, and that acknowledge the steep social costs of porous borders. In other words, true reform would be bipartisan, addressing credible concerns of conservatives and liberals alike.

Instead, we're about to get temporary half-measures issued by fiat from Obama.

On energy, we need a national policy that balances the threat of global warming against the hunger for jobs—one that acknowledges the economic and national security benefits of diversifying our energy buffet.

Instead, Washington stages a symbolic and near-empty debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. Lost amid the hype and lies are two inconvenient truths: The pipeline is unlikely to alter global greenhouse emissions, and it would produce only 50 long-term jobs.

On taxes and spending, we need a so-called grand bargain that would raise taxes and reduce the rate of growth of Medicare and other entitlements. The federal debt has reached 74 percent of the economy's annual output and, barring a change in policy, the percentage will remain about the same for a couple of years before swelling to a dangerous 78 percent in 2024 and 106 percent in 2039.

Instead of a bipartisan deal, the nation's leaders stumbled into "sequestration," a series of deep cuts that lacked strategic, long-term planning. It was a partisan victory for conservatives: No taxes were raised.

On the economy, we need bold new approaches to addressing income inequality, stifled social mobility, and falling real wages. Instead, we get ideological leftovers: Obama proposes a minimum-wage increase, and the GOP talks more tax cuts.

On health care, we needed a market-driven plan that decreases the percentage of uninsured Americans without convoluting the U.S. health care system. Just such a plan sprang out of conservative think tanks and was tested by a GOP governor in Massachusetts, Mitt Romney.

Instead of a bipartisan agreement to bring that plan to scale, we got more partisan warfare. The GOP resisted, Obama surrendered his mantle of bipartisanship, and Democrats muscled through a one-sided law that has never been popular with a majority of the public.

The Supreme Court will soon decide whether Obamacare subsidies can go to people who signed up through the federal exchanges, or if those subsidies are only available for people who joined Obamacare through state exchanges. To scale back the subsidies, and cripple the law, the Court would need to hang its ruling on one sentence in the law—what Democrats call a typo.

Their case may be hurt by Jonathan Gruber, a key Obamacare consultant who said in 2012, "If you're a state and you don't set up an exchange, that means your citizens don't get their tax credits."

Yes, that's the same Gruber who bragged about how Democrats used a lack of transparency to pass the law. The one who called Americans stupid.

No matter how the justices rule, one side or the other will agree with long-time Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse, who argues that the Court has begun to look like "just a collection of politicians in robes." You heard a lot of that after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of George W. Bush in the 2000 recount.

That election, followed by the flawed presidencies of Bush and Obama (both of whom promised to break the fever of partisanship), helped exacerbate a sense among most Americans that the institutions of politics and government aren't working for them.

Americans' confidence in all three branches of government has plummeted, Gallup reported in June, reaching record lows for the Supreme Court (30 percent) and Congress (7 percent), and a six-year low for the office of the presidency (29 percent).

Is the GOP responsible for the extraordinary smallness of Washington? How about the Democrats? The answer is, yes—both are. While I would personally place a majority of the onus on a hardened GOP base, parsing the blame doesn't solve the problem.

Boehner has been unable and unwilling to lead his party to compromise with Obama. The president has been unable and unwilling to peel off pragmatic Republicans; it's much easier to work against them, or ignore them, while disengaging from the process he vowed to change.

Small-minded leaders diminish their institutions. In the era of Bush and Obama, the institutions of politics and government are shrinking to irrelevancy or massive disruption.