Why Nothing Ever Changes in Washington

Aug. 1, 2011
Politicians recycle the same tired ideas throughout the summer of our discontent.

What would happen, do you think, if our elected politicians actually set out to promote the general welfare and form a more perfect union? That’s part of their mission statement, after all, but rarely, if ever, do we ever get a sense that any of them are aware of a higher calling than getting their faces on one of the 24-hour cable news channels.

As our two major political parties continue to lurch from one crisis to the next, making things worse with every misstep, it’s becoming quite obvious that these endless debates (or should that be debacles?) – whether it’s about entitlements, tax increases, spending cuts, or debt ceilings – have nothing to do with finding common ground so that people and businesses can get on with their lives. Instead, what’s happening is that both sides – the Democrats and the Republicans – have bought into the myth that they’re each fighting for the hearts and souls of the American people. In fact, though, this fight long ago stopped being about the people; instead, it’s mainly about the fight itself.

Commentators in the mass media keep asking when the two sides will concede some ground and enter into a spirit of compromise. Frankly, I don’t think there’s any interest in Washington to change the status quo because both parties are quite content to remain endlessly locked in battle. I’m reminded of the climactic scene between the Joker and Batman in “The Dark Knight” movie, when the Joker explains that neither one of them will ever really win: “You and I are destined to do this forever.”

For an issue to actually be resolved to everyone’s liking is unthinkable. Too many stakeholders’ livelihoods would be jeopardized by the actual resolution of an issue. In short, Washington’s existence is predicated on the notion that nothing will ever actually change.

For one side to really, truly and uncategorically win – to the extent that the other side vanishes completely – is the ultimate lose-lose scenario. Imagine what would happen if, say, the Hours of Service (HOS) dispute was finally settled, and all those involved agreed that the new regulations were completely fair and equitable. Consider how many agency workers, political action groups, lawyers, lobbyists, consultants and researchers would be out of a job overnight.

While we’re all led to believe that the HOS dispute is between those who want to overregulate trucking and those who want as little regulation as possible, what it really boils down to is this: Who stands to lose if the Hours of Service rules go into effect and all objections are amicably and permanently resolved? The cottage industries that have kept the rules in a constant state of chaos for decades. It’s no wonder that when we asked readers when they thought the HOS rules would clear all legal challenges, more than half (54%) said “probably never.”

At their core, supply chain matters are economic issues, whether you’re trying to cube out a truckload, source raw materials from Asia, or forecast how many widgets to make next month. Washington’s ivory towers, of course, employ plenty of economist but practically nobody who understands business, let alone how the nation’s supply chain works. So instead of leadership, we get glib platitudes. Instead of some semblance of progress, we get endless recycling of the same position statements. And meanwhile, entire industries are vanishing from our shores, high unemployment saps away the spirit and lifesavings of millions of Americans, much of our infrastructure is rotting away right before our eyes, and the economy continues to sputter.

In the “Batman” movies, the real star (for me, anyway) is Commissioner Gordon, a no-nonsense civilian whose job is to quietly (but heroically) keep the citizens of Gotham City safe in their homes and jobs while two costumed antagonists focus monomaniacally on upstaging the other. I see supply chain managers in the same light as Commissioner Gordon – hard-working men and women who find their lives constantly being interrupted by preening, prattling prima donnas, but who nevertheless stay focused on making and distributing their products. In this summer of celluloid superheroes and speak-loudly-but-do-nothing politicians, it’s the ever-resilient supply chain that’s emerged as the real hero.