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The Politics of Kick the Can

Washington is leveraging our future through borrowing in a way states never could.

12:00 AM, May 14, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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Capitol Hill insiders often use the phrase "kick the can" to describe legislative procrastination. Can't fix a problem? No worries. Leave it to the next Congress. And on thorny issues, where consensus is elusive, lawmakers do a lot of kicking.

But not everyone in American politics has the option to punt. Some, like governors and state legislators, regularly make tough choices in a zero-sum game. Raise taxes? Cut spending? Eliminate services? When governments must annually balance budgets--as required of most states--the "popular choice" option doesn't appear on the menu. More money for teachers? Not without raising taxes or cutting somewhere else. Increase Medicaid reimbursements? Only after inflicting some pain in other parts of budget. How about roads? Same trade-offs. State versus federal differences in the ability to postpone policy pain can also create real consequences in political approval--a pattern we're seeing all across America today.

For state elected officials, the difficulty of these decisions expands exponentially in a bad economy. Revenues drop and demand for services like health care and unemployment benefits rises. It's a vicious spiral that can't be avoided.

Things are different here in Washington. When Congress can't find consensus on a controversial issue, they usually defer tough medicine. True, they may not completely ignore the quandary. They study it; they form "blue ribbon" panels; and they certainly talk about it. They just never get around to actually solving the problem.

Part of the reason they kick the can is because, well . . . they can. Few federal legislative priorities include hard deadlines. Health care reform? We've been booting that one down the lane for a while. Climate change? It's now a top White House priority, but there are no fixed time limits for achievement. Saving Social Security? That one gave Congress a sore toe.

The political consequences for those who can kick the can--and those who cannot--are just now emerging. Take a look at public approval numbers of Congress. Last spring the March 2008 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found congressional approval at 18% and disapproval at 70% (a net deficit of 52 points). About one year later, according to the same news organization poll, the net deficit narrowed to 30 points (28% approval/58% disapproval). Still nothing to write home about, but trending in the right direction as a popular president's tide lifts the boats of other inside-the-beltway shipmates.

The state numbers paint a different picture. Nate Silver, who writes a blog called FiveThirtyEight.com, recently posted numbers from SurveyUSA tracking the approval ratings of governors during the same period. Unlike Congress, most governors face stormy seas. Silver notes average approval of the 12 governors regularly tracked by SurveyUSA moved in the opposite direction, dropping from 50% last spring to 41% in April 2009.

The divergence in trends of congressional and gubernatorial approval is particularly interesting because they usually move in tandem. University of North Carolina Professor James A. Stimson analyzed approval ratings of congressman, senators, governors and measures related to "trust in government" going back to 1981. In his book Tides of Consent: How Public Opinion Shapes American Politics, he shows that these ratings usually shift in parallel fashion and seem to tap a generic satisfaction or dissatisfaction with government, rather than attitudes toward specific elected officials or institutions.

Looking at these numbers over the long term, Stimson's probably right. "Approval" of elected officials--congressmen, senators, governors--looks like it moves up and down depending on Americans' trust in government in general. But there is always room for a short-term divergence. And that seems to be happening now. Why? The governors' inability to kick the can is a big factor.