GUY RAZ, host: A lot of people are wondering whether our lawmakers are actually interested in solving problems. For example, this week, members of the Senate Finance Committee were scheduled to meet. And they were supposed to vote on trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
But then, just a few minutes before that meeting was supposed to start, Republicans said they weren't coming. They said they wanted more time to consider those agreements, even though they'd been in the works for a year. Now, Democrats insist that these deals will help the U.S. economy, so do some Republicans. But still, no agreement.
So, that afternoon, New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who's on the committee, decided to vent, out loud and in public.
Senator CHUCK SCHUMER: They want the country to be in as bad shape as possible because that might help them electorally. All of a sudden, it's sort of like a new fever has taken over the other side. That the best way to win is hurt the country as much as you can and that will create political benefit. And it's just - it's sad.
RAZ: This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
SCHUMER: It's just confounding. I've never experienced anything like it in the 37 years I've been in politics.
RAZ: Our cover story today: the politics of dysfunctional government and why the president's bully pulpit just isn't as effective as it used to be in forcing Congress to get work done.
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RAZ: August 2nd, that's when the Treasury Department says the country will default on its debt unless Congress raises the government's borrowing limit. Right now, that limit is $14.3 trillion. And over the past century, Congress has always agreed to raise the limit when the government was getting close.
This time, it's different. Congressional Republicans say they'll only consider agreeing if the White House closes the budget deficit by making trillions of dollars in cuts. And President Obama insists he is prepared, as he says, to make painful cuts, but that Republicans will need to accept higher taxes for wealthier Americans.
President BARACK OBAMA: The Republican leadership in Congress will, hopefully sooner rather than later, come to the conclusion that they need to make the right decisions for the country, that everybody else has been willing to move off their maximalist position, they need to do the same.
RAZ: Now most economists say you can't close that deficit without some kind of tax increase. But that, says Republican House Speaker John Boehner, is a deal breaker.
Representative JOHN BOEHNER: No tax increases.
BOEHNER: Zero. I've made it clear to the president, we're not going to raise taxes. You can't raise taxes on the very people that we expect to invest in our economy and to create jobs.
RAZ: So here we are at an impasse, and lots of political observers are asking how an otherwise pro forma issue, raising the debt ceiling, all of a sudden became the center of a political showdown.
Here's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON: What happened was the Republicans got a majority in the House of Representatives in 2010, and many of the new Republicans campaigned on a promise not to raise the debt ceiling. Some Republicans said, I won't vote to raise the debt ceiling unless there are big spending cuts and to pay up the deficit reduction. Other Republicans said just flatly, I won't raise the debt ceiling.
Don't forget in the past, it's always been a partisan football. President Obama, when he was in the Senate, voted against raising the debt ceiling and said because he thought it was a symbol of a failure of leadership on the part of the Republican president.
So, this has been a partisan football. However, the party in the majority usually swallows hard and votes to raise the debt ceiling. Because if it's not raised, the United States will default and our credit rating, in effect, in the international financial community will be wrecked.
RAZ: Let's talk about the political strategy here. Let's say the U.S. did default, is there a plausible chance that congressional Republicans could successfully pin the blame on the president and say, look, he wasn't willing to compromise with us about cutting spending down and we're not going to raise your taxes, and we're in default because the president was unwilling to work with us.
LIASSON: The answer to that question is unknowable, and that's what makes the political dance here so difficult. It's impossible to know for Republicans if, in fact, the country defaulted would the president take the blame. If, as he put it at that press conference, all of a sudden, the United States is in the position where they have to choose between paying interests on our debt to China or paying people's Social Security checks, would he be able to pin the blame on Republicans at that point for blocking the debt ceiling? Or would they be able to blame him?
That is something that's impossible to game out. It's really playing with fire. And this has never happened before. And that is why the leadership in Congress, particularly in the House, the Republican leadership has said all along that the debt ceiling will be raised.
RAZ: Mara, are there any Republican political strategists or even, you know, lawmakers who have implied or would maybe say that, in some ways, dysfunctional government could help the cause of conservatives, could actually help Republicans because, in a sense, it affirms this idea that government is the problem?
LIASSON: Well, it's true that when there's gridlock, which is one form of dysfunctional government, when the president can't get things done, can't get things through Congress, he looks less effective. And in that sense, dysfunctional government or gridlock always helps the opposition party.
But we don't really have a pure opposition party right now, because Republicans are in charge of one House of Congress. So it's a little more complicated. We went through this before when we had a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and a Republican Congress and there was gridlock. There was a government shutdown and the Republicans ended up getting blamed.
And Republicans I've talked to in Congress aren't so sure that if things come to a total impasse on this debt ceiling debate that they'll be the ones who'd come out looking good. It's impossible to know. That's why the stakes are very high here and the politics are very hard to calculate.
RAZ: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks.
LIASSON: Thank you, Guy.
RAZ: Now, President Obama revealed some of his frustration at the impasse earlier in the week during a news conference. He even drew a parallel between members of Congress and the homework habits of his own daughters.
OBAMA: They don't wait until the night before. They're not pulling all-nighters.
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OBAMA: They're 13 and 10. You know, Congress can do the same thing. If you know you've got to do something, just do it.
RAZ: Now, not too long ago, historian Julian Zelizer says this sort of thing might have worked for a president. If he felt Congress wasn't cooperating, he just stand in front of a microphone somewhere, usually the White House, and instantly, millions of Americans would hear his message. And the master of the bully pulpit? Ronald Reagan.
JULIAN ZELIZER: Who, in 1981, just after he becomes president and wants to persuade Congress and the nation to pass a tax cut, a huge tax cut, and to cut government spending...
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President RONALD REAGAN: I'm speaking to you tonight to give you a report on the state of our nation's economy.
ZELIZER: Before speaking to Congress, he makes a television address, where he decides he's just going to circumvent Congress and start by talking directly to the American people.
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REAGAN: Here is a dollar such as you earned, spent or saved in 1960, and here is a quarter, a dime and a penny, 36 cents. That's what this 1960 dollar is worth today.
RAZ: And it worked. President Reagan got his tax cut. So the bully pulpit, the idea that the president commanded the attention of the media and the public used to be among his most powerful tools. It worked for Truman and Johnson and Reagan, and even President Clinton. But those days, says Julian Zelizer, are gone.
ZELIZER: I think in the modern age, the president speaks most channels aren't showing what he is saying. And so, it's very difficult for a president to command the same attention.
Now Congress is also so polarized right now, I just don't think the strongest presidential message can really move the parties. It might be that President Obama is not effective or it might be, more realistically, this is really all a president can do.
President Bush had the same complaints often. He was telling Americans what he was doing and he said they didn't hear him or they didn't understand. This might be all that's available to a president in 2011 and 2012.
RAZ: Historian Julian Zelizer. So, what about that idea that the president may not be able to do a whole lot to persuade either the Congress or the public? Well, if that is the case, isn't there an argument to be made that gridlock is a good political strategy for the president's opponents?
Bryan Caplan is a political economist at George Mason University in Virginia and the author of the book "The Myth of the Rational Voter."
BRYAN CAPLAN: It is quite likely that Obama will bear more of the blame for things not going well than the Republican House. And so, actually, if Republicans care about their party getting the presidency next year, it might be better for them if things don't improve.
RAZ: Why would the president get blamed rather than congressional Republicans?
CAPLAN: Well, for that, you kind of have to ask the voters. All I can say is that it seems like the presidential elections are more sensitive to economic conditions than congressional elections. And probably it's, you know, because of the mutual finger-pointing. And somehow when everybody points fingers at everyone, the fingers at the president seem more convincing than the fingers pointed at Congress, even though it's probably a pretty mixed bag.
RAZ: So essentially, what you're saying is, is that the Republicans who say, look, government is the problem, it's not the solution, that is their philosophical view. If, in fact, they ensure that government cannot resolve problems, it's - they're just kind of affirming there philosophical view.
CAPLAN: Could be. Again, of course, they might be right. It might be that what Obama's promoting is a bad idea. Of course, in 2008, McCain, according to betting markets, was ahead in August and was - and looked like he was going to win, and then everything tanked. And it seems pretty clear it was good for Democrats that it did tank.
RAZ: Do you really think voters are irrational, or could it be that they're, you know, busy living their lives and just not paying a whole lot of attention?
CAPLAN: So one of the main things that I say in the book is if people were just not paying attention, things would be fine.
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CAPLAN: Because if people who didn't know what they're talking about didn't pay any attention, then politicians wouldn't have to worry about their views on things and they could just focus on winning over people who actually know what the facts are.
One of the main problems with democracy is that people who don't know what they're talking about still have opinions, very strong opinions, and they vote on them. And if politicians try to go against that and say, well, most Americans believe this, but they're wrong, they could lose very badly.
RAZ: So how does that relate to what we're seeing now with gridlock over raising the debt limit?
CAPLAN: Right. Well, I mean, I think a lot of gridlock is based on the fact that on the one hand, there's a lot of very popular programs. And just as a matter of math, there's a bunch of, you know, something has to give.
RAZ: In other words, people like Social Security and Medicare, but nobody wants to...
CAPLAN: Right. And those are the big programs and the rapidly growing programs. They don't want taxes to go up and they don't want deficits either.
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RAZ: That's political economist Bryan Caplan. Tomorrow on this program, we'll take a look at the economic consequences of not cutting a deal.
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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