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Who Is Leading? Who’s Following? : Budget deadlocks reveal crisis of process

In recent weeks, all Americans have watched Washington fail to deliver on issues both fundamental and crucial to a decent society. Californians were treated to a second sorry performance, much closer to home.

What the Founders had in mind when they arranged the system, balancing interests and their access to power against one another, was to discourage abrupt change, not prevent change entirely. But the process leads to paralysis at least as often as to results.

Why is this happening? The collapse of political parties as tools of leadership and discipline is part of it. So is polarization of voters on issues. One particularly abject result of polarization is desperate efforts to avoid offending any part of the polarized electorate. This is a sure-fire prescription for inertia.

None of this is new. James MacGregor Burns, a political scientist at Williams College, described the breakdown and its causes in elegant detail in “The Deadlock of Democracy” nearly 30 years ago. What is new is that the deadlock gets worse by the year.

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Washington’s deadlock is over cutting the federal deficit by at least $50 billion in each of the next five years to move toward a balanced budget.

Balancing the federal budget is no dusty matter of abstract arithmetic. Unbalanced budgets of the 1980s guarantee high interest rates. Nothing could be more important as the nation scrapes bottom and heads into a recession than lowering interest rates. But after weeks of negotiating, shoving the blame for higher taxes back and forth between what’s left of the nation’s political parties often seems the overriding concern.

The Sacramento system is a harder case. Voter-approved limits on government have stacked the deck against consensus and increased the power of extremists in both parties. For example, it takes a two-thirds vote to pass a state budget and this makes it easier for die-hards to block spending they oppose.

Nobody won the Sacramento budget fight. Democrats made education their big issue, holding out against school budget cuts. But while they managed to stick Gov. George Deukmejian with making the deepest cuts in mental health, welfare and other programs, they still share responsibility for the burden the budget places on the poor.

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Gov. Deukmejian kept tampering with taxes to a minimum, but he cannot truly claim not to have raised any taxes. His unexpected cuts in school funds--many of which may not stand up in court--is not the sort of help Republican candidates need this fall.

In assessing damage, legislators talked about a lack of leadership as a critical element. That has a familiar ring.

Burns wrote in the early 1960s that lack of leadership was a central ingredient in the deadlock he was describing. ". . . Politics has not engaged the best of us, or at least the best in us,” he wrote.

But in a society grown even more apathetic about politics than it was when Burns wrote, a society polarized on the issues and suspicious of government, the leadership questions that perhaps need answers most desperately are: Leaders of what followers? Leading them where?

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