WASHINGTON — The Washington of conventional wisdom and the real Washington are two entirely different places. The Washington of conventional wisdom is overrun by well-paid insiders — lobbyists, lawyers, publicists — who systematically manipulate government policies to benefit corporations and the rich, defying the "will of the people." The real Washington has government paid for by the rich and well-to-do. Benefits go mainly to the poor and middle class, while politicians of both parties live in fear that they might offend the "will of the people" — voters.
Recently, Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, testified before the House Budget Committee on the growth of the 10-largest "means tested" federal programs that serve people who qualify by various definitions of poverty. Here's what Haskins reported: From 1980 to 2011, annual spending on these programs grew from $126 billion to $626 billion (all figures in inflation-adjusted "2011 dollars"); dividing this by the number of people below the government poverty line, spending went from $4,300 per poor person in 1980 to $13,000 in 2011. In 1962, spending per person in poverty was $516.
Haskins' list includes Medicaid, food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), the earned-income tax credit (a wage subsidy for some low-income workers), and Pell Grants. There are other, smaller programs dedicated to the poor. A report from the Congressional Research Service estimated the total number at 83; Haskins puts the additional spending on programs below the 10 largest at about $210 billion. The total of all programs for the poor exceeds $800 billion.
To be sure, some spending reflects the effects of the Great Recession. But most doesn't. As Haskins shows, spending on the poor has increased steadily for decades. Consider food stamps. There are now about 45 million Americans receiving an average of $287 a month in food stamps, up from 26 million in 2007, according to a new Congressional Budget Office report. But the number in 2007, when the economy was healthy, was roughly 50 percent higher than in 2001.
And programs for the poor pale beside middle-class transfers. The giants here are Social Security at $725 billion in 2011 and Medicare at $560 billion. Combine all this spending — programs for the poor, Social Security and Medicare — and the total is nearly $2.1 trillion. That was about 60 percent of 2011 non-interest federal spending of $3.4 trillion.
You can debate whether all this spending is too much or too little. My point is different: These numbers speak volumes about our politics.
One lesson is that Washington really hasn't been taken over by moneyed groups. In a democracy, even the rich are entitled to promote their interests. It's true that their lobbyists and lawyers sometimes win lucrative tax breaks, subsidies or regulatory preferences. But as the spending numbers show, their influence is exaggerated, especially considering their tax burden. The richest fifth of Americans pay nearly 70 percent of federal taxes (included in this group, the richest 10 percent pay 55 percent), estimates the CBO.
The larger lesson is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, American politics have not become insensitive to the "the people." In many ways, just the opposite is true. Politicians are too responsive to popular will. The real Washington is in the business of pleasing as many people as possible for as long as possible. There are now vast constituencies dependent on the largesse of the federal government. This is the main cause of huge "structural" budget deficits, meaning that they aren't simply a hangover from the Great Recession.
There are many sophisticated theories today about why politics have become so polarized and immobilized. Ideologues have captured both parties, it's said; primary challenges by right- and left-wing zealots doom centrists; cable television and the Internet favor simplistic, highly partisan rhetoric and argument. Political divisions are accentuated; consensus becomes harder. There's something to these theories, but they also subtly misrepresent and excuse our present paralysis.
More promises were made than can be kept without raising taxes, which — for the most part — were also subject to bipartisan promises against increases. Almost everyone agrees that massive budget deficits pose a long-term economic threat, though no one can be precise about how or when the threat might emerge. A central question about our political system is whether, after 60 years of making more promises to more groups, it can withdraw some promises to minimize the threat.
So far, the answer is "no." Political leaders don't lead. They take the path of least resistance, which has been to do little except to find scapegoats — "the rich," "special interests," "liberals," "conservatives" — that arouse their supporters' angriest antagonisms. It helps explain polarization. This is really what Washington does. It's a demoralizing commentary on the state of American democracy.
Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.