What Would Alice Rivlin Say Now?
A partial summary of the Divided We Fall Preface and Afterword by Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin prepared for the Brookings Institution book launch event, October 3, 2022
Alice Rivlin has a book coming out on October 4, 2022, which may surprise you because she died in 2019. The book could be viewed as Alice’s memoirs, a summary of her life and legacy, but that is not the book the former Budget Director, Federal Reserve Vice Chair, and Founding Director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) intended to write. She viewed the book as an urgent message to the American public to get involved in making democracy work better, or potentially lose our democracy, perhaps forever. That is the book we, her son and daughter-in-law, completed for her, only regretting that it took us as long as three years to get it ready to publish.
Alice was alarmed at the state of American politics and policy having seen partisan warfare, political standoffs, and gridlock in Washington erode public confidence in our political leaders and call into question whether our democracy still has the capacity to address serious economic challenges. Alice was calling on political leaders of both parties to break the stalemates by making the compromises necessary to reach bipartisan agreements to solve long-stalled problems. She was also calling on citizens to join the many groups working to safeguard democracy and make it function well enough to be worth saving.
After Alice’s death, former President Donald Trump and his supporters refused to accept the results of the 2020 national election, plotted to overturn the outcome, and replaced the American tradition of peaceful transfers of power with a violent insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Efforts to undermine American Democracy are ongoing with many 2022 candidates continuing to deny the results of the 2020 election while seeking positions of influence over the administration of future elections, plotting to replace the will of voters with decisions made by politicians in state governments and state legislatures.
This threat to American democracy underscores the importance of the depth of the book’s analysis of the context and causes of the decline of American politics and the dozens of specific recommendations Alice offers for reforms to congressional process, election laws, and to strengthen the guardrails of democracy, as well as the action steps she offers for concerned citizens to become involved in protecting democracy and building bridges of bipartisan civil discourse. Despite the threat, Alice would remain optimistic that progressives, moderates, and conservatives who uphold democracy will unite in support of truth, reason, respectful discourse, and compromise as the proper way to resolve political disputes, and craft public policies that help people and solve our persistent problems.
Voters must use the 2022 election to defend democracy. The book calls on consistent voters and infrequent voters who have not established a regular habit of voting in state legislative races, to get more involved in democracy at all levels as an act of patriotism. Take the time to find information about all the candidates in your area and vote in every election for every office. Whether you vote for Democrats or Republicans is your choice, but in 2022, it is important to vote to support truth-based democracy and vote against candidates that would deny the truth and undermine democracy. The truth is Joe Biden won the 2020 election, and those who deny this fact represent the real threat to American democracy whether they are running for the school board, state legislature, congress, or the senate in 2022 or the White House in 2024.
Fair elections and voting rights must be protected. Current efforts to suppress or protect voting rights cannot be fully understood without knowing the context of this issue throughout American history. The book details the expansion of the right to vote to women, freed slaves and their descendants, and other minority groups, with particular emphasis on efforts to make it difficult - or through extreme violence impossible - for freed slaves to vote after the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era. The book details the bipartisan politics necessary to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act (and its long-term effect on the partisan balance in Washington) and the current period after key provisions of the Act have been voided by the Supreme Court. The evolution of win-at-all-costs campaigning requires strong laws to ensure elections are fair and responsive to the will of voters. The book calls for renewal of the Voting Rights Act and reform of the Electoral Count Act (the specific law Trump’s plot sought to exploit). If these are not passed before the 2022 election, there is still hope for bipartisan passage in a lame duck session in December. The book is a call to action for the many Americans looking to find ways to respond to the threats to our democracy inviting them to join the bipartisan groups working to protect voting rights, get money out of politics, get politics out of congressional redistricting, experiment with alternative election formats, and engage in civil discourse.
Democrats and Republicans must make democracy work to solve people’s problems by relearning the art of compromise, without compromising basic values. The book offers a detailed analysis of the political science scholarship, American history, and Alice’s experiences to make the case that partisan policy standoffs had been increasing from the Reagan years through the Obama Administration, leading to a rise in anti-establishment populism that helped Trump win the 2016 election. Among many causes the book highlights is the ascendency of special interest groups’ opposing compromise positions on taxes, abortion, guns, immigration, and many issues. This has not been symmetrical; it started on the right but then more recently has been emulated on the left, to the point where the word “compromise” is now tarnished among political activists on both sides. Conservative interest groups exist to hold Republicans “accountable” if they ever compromise with Democrats, and progressive groups publicly criticize moderate Democrats.
But compromise is essential to passing legislation. Most bills that become law do so with support in both parties. History, reexperienced in 2021-2022, tells us strictly partisan legislation is both difficult and rare. Interest groups help define the compromises that are unacceptable and the talking points to define the opposition as unreasonable. But elected leaders are not doing their jobs if they only block the other side and only seek to sharpen differences with the opposite party for the next election. Their job is to work through their differences and craft legislation that has enough support to pass into law. This has not been happening enough and too many serious problems like economic inequality, climate change, and a broken immigration system, are going unaddressed.
It is not necessary to compromise basic values to reach legislative agreements. Our elected leaders differ in part because they represent voters with different views of the proper role and size of government. But conservatives can fight for lower taxes without choosing to oppose any revenue increase or tax loophole elimination, and progressives can fight for increased social spending without taking the position that we cannot agree to solve some problems unless we commit to solving every problem. The book examines many areas where potential bipartisan cooperation has succeeded or been blocked and concludes that bipartisanship happens more frequently than most people believe, often when is seems least likely, yet still it happens less frequently than the public deserves.
Democrats must get more done by reaching compromise solutions with other Democrats. Alice details the first two years of the Clinton Administration she served in, and the first two years of the Obama Administration and identifies a pattern that has reemerged with Joe Biden in the White House. Both Clinton and Obama came into office with Democrats in control of both chambers of Congress. Both saw their legislative priorities stalled in protracted stand-offs between progressive House Democrats and moderate Senate Democrats, and both saw Democrats lose their majorities in both chambers in the 1994 and 2010 midterm elections. While this is not strictly an issue of bipartisanship, the same skills of listening, flexibility, and creative problem solving are needed to move from impasse to common ground among the wings of the Democratic Party and make progress on legislation to benefit the voting public.
The same wheel of frustration seemed to be taking a third turn at the start of the Biden Administration. Throughout 2021, Biden followed a two-track strategy to pass legislation, one seeking bipartisan action, and one seeking to pass legislation through the budget reconciliation process with just Democratic votes. The bipartisan track yielded a major infrastructure bill, another supporting domestic semiconductor production, a bill to help specific veterans with their health issues, a bill allowing NATO expansion, and a compromise bill on firearm safety. The partisan “Democrats only” track including Biden’s signature Build Back Better (BBB) bill was stalled in a Democrats versus Democrats standoff. Alice would have supported nearly every element in the BBB plan, but she would not have seen a need to pass them all at once. With the press focused on the stalled legislation rather than the bipartisan successes, Biden’s approval numbers and the Democrats’ chances in the midterms declined dramatically. It was not until August of 2022 that Democrats reached agreement to pass parts of the BBB renamed the Inflation Reduction Act. The 2022 midterm results will tell Democrats whether they changed course in time, but the first two years of the Biden Administration have shown 60 out of 100 Senators to be a much easier hurdle to clear than 50 out of 50 Democratic Senators.
The Senate filibuster should be eliminated. Among a list of proposed reforms to congressional rules to make the House and Senate more effective and open to bipartisan cooperation, Alice takes a strong position for the elimination of the Senate filibuster rule. As it is currently being used, or more accurately, abused today, routinely raising the Senate threshold for legislation passage to a 60-vote supermajority, in opposition to the intent of the Constitution’s writers, the filibuster now diminishes rather than encourages bipartisan cooperation and has become a weapon of hyper-partisan warfare, not a tool to end it.
Prioritize reducing economic inequality, both vertical and horizontal. Whether the whole of the US economy is currently in a recession or not, millions of American households have been facing poor economic conditions for decades. In pockets of urban poverty, many of which have been relocated by gentrification to struggling suburbs, and in vast stretches of rural and small-town America, opportunities are scarce, incomes have not been keeping up, many have been falling out of the middle class and dropping out of the labor force. There is increasing consensus on the left, center, and right that inequality of wealth, income, opportunity, and political power has reached unacceptable levels that threaten popular support for our democratic institutions. Inequality makes our other economic challenges worse because slowing growth and rising prices harm struggling families and individuals more than the comfortable few, and our policy responses to economic shocks like the financial crisis and the global pandemic have worsened inequality and reduced public trust in the ability of policymakers to serve the public interest.
Discussions of ”two Americas” are rarely explicit in defining the cleavages. There are many American realities and dividing lines, and large numbers resent their communities’ disadvantages. The book defines two useful dimensions. When Senator Bernie Sanders describes the “one percent” controlling outsized wealth, power, and political influence, the book labels this the vertical dimension of inequality. The book defines Donald Trump’s message of American carnage in the heartland of closed factories, declining wealth, and opportunity due to a system rigged by elites in Washington and Wall Street as the horizontal dimension of inequality. The book offers a bold and comprehensive economic plan to unite red-state and blue-state America by tackling both horizontal and vertical inequality. Building on the success of comeback cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Las Vegas, Alice proposes substantial federal support for locally directed regional economic development strategies, based on investments in education, innovation, infrastructure, and healthy communities to create jobs and opportunity for the people and places that have been falling behind.
Fiscal and monetary policy must reduce inflation, grow the economy, and shrink the deficit. After nearly disappearing as a concern from 2008 into 2021, inflation’s return requires major changes in economic policy. From years of a one-front battle to stimulate the economy, policy returns to historically normal dual constraints pushing in two opposing directions to balance the goals of full employment and price stability. A long period of loose monetary policy must now tighten, and low interest rates are rising as they must. Tax cuts and big spending have given us deficits and a national debt that are unsustainably high, and the retirement of the baby boom generation Alice was always warning would add to future deficits, has now arrived as we, her children are reaching retirement age. We risk a dangerous feedback loop, where high deficits and debt contribute to higher inflation and interest rates, but higher inflation and interest rates make paying off the debt more challenging. We are banking the future health of our economy on the assumption that Americans, foreigners, and foreign governments will forever be willing to loan us money at reasonable interest rates.
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To keep our past commitments and invest in America’s future, taxes on the wealthy and corporations must increase. Wherever we are in the business cycle, and whatever our level of debt, we must never stop investing in future prosperity and productivity. We will be in a worse position to respond to whatever the future may bring if we “eat the seed corn” and stop investing in basic scientific research, biomedical research, advancing computer technology, or launching space satellites. Our competitive advantage depends on continuous innovation of new technologies in advanced agricultural techniques, new manufacturing processes, breakthrough communications capabilities, and more that we cannot imagine today.
DRAFTJS_BLOCK_KEY:2lvtbFiscal and monetary policy must reduce inflation, grow the economy, and shrink the deficit.
We will rely on having the best educated and best trained workforce in the world to take advantage of these innovations, so we must maintain or increase our investment in all levels of education and job training, and businesses rely on infrastructure, broadly defined, to get their products produced, sold, and delivered to their customers. But we must also ask what is the purpose of all of this activity? As a nation we have answered with a commitment to life-long workers and their dependents that they will have healthcare and a measure of income security in their retirement. In addition to the need to keep America militarily safe, there is near consensus that we must maintain or increase spending for Social Security, Medicare, education, law enforcement, infrastructure, research and development, and nearly every other line in the federal budget. But we have a massive $1 trillion deficit so we need to raise more revenue to fund the government voters in both parties insist must not be cut.
We have developed a bad habit of passing massive tax cuts during economic boom times without anyone seriously suggesting we would want to raise taxes in the next economic downturn. The global pandemic hit us shortly after a major tax cut took effect, and there was a bipartisan agreement to dramatically increase spending and run deficits at levels as a percentage of total output that had not been seen since World War II. After WWII, there was a bipartisan consensus to raise tax rates quite a lot to pay off the debt. We need the same resolve now from leaders of both parties.
The book makes a distinction between short-term deficits that can be good policy in response to an economic shock like the pandemic or to stimulate the economy during a demand deficient phase of the business cycle, and long-term deficit and debt projections that had been too high for most of Alice’s career and are now projected to grow far higher with the baby boom generation leaving the workforce and drawing retirement and health benefits. The economy has been overstimulated, so to control inflation
we need lower deficits with restrained spending and higher tax revenues. Because these policies are politically unpopular serious achievements in deficit reduction must come through bipartisan agreements or they will be exploited in the next election. Alice would still be an advocate for a “grand bargain” to put the nation’s borrowing on a sustainable path.
Patriotic Americans must trust imperfect government. Republicans were not always the small government party. Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were not small government conservatives, but Ronald Reagan brought Barry Goldwater’s anti-government philosophy into the White House in 1980. From the Vietnam War and Watergate, through the financial crisis of 2008, increasing inequality and stagnant or declining real wage rates, there are many reasons Americans distrust their government, but President Trump stoked this distrust as both a weapon and a shield with dangerous consequences for American democracy. Whenever any arm of government produced a fact or statistic that contradicted Trump’s message, he would launch a ferocious attack. One of his first targets was the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
As Founding Director of the CBO in 1974, Alice’s career was defined by the goal of bringing nonpartisan expertise to complex policy decision making. CBO is one of scores of government departments, agencies, offices, and commissions designed to develop expertise in subjects as diverse as economics, medicine, science, climate, foreign and military intelligence. Trump stoked distrust in all of them because they were the experts doing their jobs, trying as best they can, to collect information and determine the truth. When Trump’s version of reality diverged from the experts’ he labeled them his enemies in the “deep state.” Today, public health officials, election workers, and even judges routinely face death threats, and occasionally actual violence. Trump also worked to delegitimize and undermine freedom of the press, congress’s investigative and oversight authority, law enforcement agencies, and the independence and authority of the courts. Collectively, these institutions are called the guardrails of democracy.
There is nothing new about the need to place limits on presidential authority, the primary purpose of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was to create a Congress, Senate, Supreme Court, and free press to guard against an imperial or tyrannical president. Each of the subsequent limitations on presidential authority arose in response to a catastrophe, impropriety, or scandal causing Congress to pass laws limiting the power of the President to interject politics or personal gain into the workings of the government. Federal government employees are protected from political influence by civil service laws passed after the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881. Abuses of power in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and the Watergate scandal led to bipartisan reforms to insulate the Department of Justice and federal law enforcement from political influence. Bipartisan investigations of 9/11 terrorist attacks revealed the dangers of politicization of military and diplomatic intelligence. Americans are all safer when presidents hear the truth, rather than what they want to hear, about threats to the country.
Negative partisanship is tearing the nation apart. Political science scholarship tells us American voters and the leaders they elect have been growing increasingly more partisan, but public support for both political parties has been decreasing, and the number who identify as independents has been increasing. This is not a contradiction because the increase in partisanship among voters has been an increase in negative partisanship. Republican voters have not grown fonder of the Republican Party, but Republicans’ views of Democrats have been declining into the basement. Democrats criticize other Democrats as much as ever, but their antipathy against Republicans is harsher now than before. Millions of Americans choose to get all or most of their news from cable television channels and other media that cater only to one side feeding their hostility and informing, or misinforming, their distrust. The rise of negative partisanship explains why most political advertising tries to link every opposing candidate with the most demonized leaders of their party, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi on the left and Donald Trump on the right.
We have sorted ourselves and our communities, both online and in real life, into teams that share information and opinions among others who already agree. Many Americans are now more motivated to see the other side lose than to see their own side win, or to pass any positive agenda. Those who see the danger of American decline in our partisan divisions must break the cycles and habits that keep us apart and replace them with active efforts to reach across the political dividing lines. Many people are already doing this, and the book identifies several organizations working to connect people across political divisions for bipartisan civil discourse to build understanding and empathy in Congress, state legislatures, and in local communities all across the United States.
The greatest democracy in the world shall not perish from the earth. Alice was alarmed and fearful as she closely observed the decline of American democracy into dysfunctional partisan warfare, and it drove her to start the book we completed for her as democracy was facing even greater challenges and more people were seeing the risks involved in the downward path we are now traveling. Despite the replacement of reasoned public policy debates with political showdowns and government shutdowns, Alice remained optimistic that political leaders could reverse course, reembrace the arts of political compromise and cooperation, and get more done to solve our enduring problems. Quoting President Bill Clinton’s famous statement, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America” she called on concerned Americans to become more engaged in saving the politicians from themselves by demanding better government and rewarding bipartisan cooperation and problem solving.
As greater threats to our democracy emerged following the 2020 election and continuing into 2022 and 2024, Alice would point out that the truth-denying anti-democracy activists are relatively few in number. Most Americans support our American democratic principles and can be counted on to rise to defend them and oppose the minority who would seek to undermine them. Our founders gave us a Constitution, a Bill of Rights, the separation of powers into three co-equal branches, and many other features of our democratic republic that were designed to frustrate any faction from taking full control of the government. She would be confident that the system that has frustrated staunch conservatives, and bold progressives for generations (forcing compromise to get anything done) will frustrate the contemporary faction threatening to undermine our democracy today. Alice would say we are not doomed, and we have our republic as long as we can work together to keep it.