The submerged state


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The submerged state

  1. 1. ReflectionsReconstituting the Submerged State:The Challenges of Social Policy Reformin the Obama EraSuzanne Mettler President Barack Obama came into office with a social welfare policy agenda that aimed to reconstitute what can be understood as the “submerged state”: a conglomeration of existing federal policies that incentivize and subsidize activities engaged in by private actors and individuals. By attempting to restructure the political economy involved in taxation, higher education policy, and health care, Obama ventured into a policy terrain that presents immense obstacles to reform itself and to the public’s perception of its success. Over time the submerged state has fostered the profitability of particular industries and induced them to increase their political capacity, which they have exercised in efforts to maintain the status quo. Yet the submerged state simultaneously eludes most ordinary citizens: they have little awareness of its policies or their upwardly redistributive effects, and few are cognizant of what is at stake in reform efforts. This article shows how, in each of the three policy areas, the contours and dynamics of the submerged state have shaped the possibilities for reform and the form it has taken, the politics surrounding it, and its prospects for success. While the Obama Administration won hard-fought legislative accomplishments in each area, political success will continue to depend on how well policy design, policy delivery and political communication reveal policy reforms to citizens, so that they better understand how reforms function and what has been achieved. It’s time for us to change America. . . . change happens because deductions for individuals earning more than $250,000 the American people demand it—because they rise up and insist as a means to raise revenues for health care reform, on new ideas and new leadership, a new politics for a new time. March 9, 2009. America, this is one of those moments. I believe that as hard as it will be, the change we need is coming. I voiced my opinion and voted for a Republican, and the roof —Barack Obama, speech accepting nomination, did not cave in . . . the health bill totally upsets me. First of all, Democratic National Convention, do we really know what’s going on with it? It’s always evasive August 28, 2008, Denver, CO when they’re talking about it. —Marlene Connolly, North Andover, MA, Eternal vigilance is the name of the game in taxation. We do not after voting for Senate candidate anticipate shining a light on this now-dormant proposal in com- Scott Brown, January 19, 2010 ing months, but we will remain intensely focused on it. arack Obama ran for president on the platform of B —National Association of Realtors, “Eye on the Hill,” after opposing Obama’s proposal to limit itemized change, and social welfare policies ranked among his top priorities for reform. During his campaign he denounced tax breaks and recent tax cuts that benefitSuzanne Mettler is Clinton Rossiter Professor of American the most affluent, even amidst rising economic inequality;Institutions, Department of Government at Cornell Univer- he condemned the deteriorating condition of education,sity ( She is grateful to Julianna Koch including reduced affordability of and access to higherfor excellent and extensive research assistance on this paper. education among those from low to moderate incomeGrants from the Russell Sage Foundation and the Spencer households; and he excoriated the skyrocketing costs ofFoundation supported the Social and Governmental Issues and health care, the growing numbers of the uninsured, andParticipation Survey of 2008, some results of which are dis- the poor treatment Americans often receive from insur-cussed herein. For helpful comments on an earlier version of this ance companies. These issues resonated with the public,paper, she thanks E.J. Dionne, Larry Jacobs, Kimberly John- because most Americans are aware of and concerned aboutson, Desmond King, Adam Sheingate, Helen Thompson, economic inequality, and most support expanded govern-and participants at the conference on “Reconstituting the Amer- ment programs to mitigate it, particularly in the areas ofican State: The Promise and Dilemmas of Obama’s First education and health care.1Year,” March 11–12, 2010, Nuffield College, Oxford.The con- The 2008 election offered promising indications thatference was sponsored by the Mellon Trust Fund. Obama could succeed in accomplishing his agenda. Hedoi:10.1017/S1537592710002045 September 2010 | Vol. 8/No. 3 803
  2. 2. Reflections | Reconstituting the Submerged Statewon 53 percent of the vote, a level no Democrat had party organizations that receive federal subsidies in exchangeachieved since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and his party for carrying out public policy goals, such as the banks andwon back control of both chambers of Congress for the lending associations that have administered student loans.first time since 1992. During his Inauguration week, Over time, the policies of the submerged state haveObama enjoyed an approval rating of 69 percent, higher reshaped politics in two ways, both of which presentedthan any newly-elected President of either party since profound challenges to Obama as he sought to accom-Johnson. plish reform and which, paradoxically, also imperil the Yet, as would soon become evident, established politi- success of his greatest achievements thus far. First, espe-cal arrangements present formidable obstacles to would-be cially during the past two decades, the submerged statereformers once they attempt the work of governance. has nurtured particular sectors of the market economyChange requires not only new ideas and determination and they have in turn invested in strengthening their polit-but also the arduous reconstitution of pre-established polit- ical capacity for the sake of preserving existing arrange-ical relationships and modes of operation. As Stephen ments. As a result, the alteration of such arrangements hasSkowronek explains in his analysis of such efforts in the required either defeating entrenched interests—which hasProgressive Era, “success hinges on recasting official power proven impossible in most cases—or, more typically, nego-relationships within governmental institutions and alter- tiating with and accommodating them, which hardlying ongoing relations between state and society.” 2 In each appears to be the kind of change Obama’s supportersarea he sought to reform, Obama confronted an existing expected when he won office. Second, such policies havestate that is at once formidable and elusive, and thus the shrouded the state’s role, making it largely invisible toquest required engagement in treacherous political bat- most ordinary citizens, even beneficiaries of existing pol-tles. Remarkably, his administration has now succeeded in icies. As a result, the public possesses little awareness ofachieving several of its major goals with respect to social such policies, nor are most people cognizant of either whatwelfare policy. Even so, for much of the public, the deliv- is at stake in reform efforts or the significance of theirery on those promises fails to meet the high expectations success.that surrounded the president when he first took office. I show how these dynamics combined to present chal-What can explain the shape that reform has taken and the lenges to Obama as he sought to achieve change in socialformidable challenges Obama has faced in accomplishing welfare policy, and I indicate how they may likely curtailhis agenda? Further, how can we make sense of why even the perceived and actual political effectiveness even of hisafter scoring key victories, he has had to try to convince policy successes. I focus especially on tax expenditures andthe public of the value of what he has achieved? higher education policy, and also give some attention to Obama confronted an established and complex policy health care reform. As we will see, the nature of the sub-thicket that presents tremendous challenges to reform. By merged state requires reformers to reveal its existence andcontrast to presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and how it functions to the public. To the extent Obama hasLyndon B. Johnson, Obama did not aim to create major done this, it has helped to facilitate the accomplishmentnew direct visible government social programs. Neither of his goals. Yet several of the reforms his administrationdid he seek to terminate or dramatically alter such pro- has accomplished expand the submerged state further, andgrams, as did Ronald Reagan, who told the nation that this means that the dynamics it promulgates are likely to“government is not the solution to our problem; govern- continue rather than to diminish.ment is the problem,” or Bill Clinton, who vowed to “endwelfare as we know it.” Rather, Obama’s policy objectivesinvolved primarily attempts to reconstitute the submerged Understanding Contemporarystate—policies that lay beneath the surface of US market Challenges to Reforminstitutions and within the federal tax system. Despite the promising aspects of the 2008 election results While its origins are not new—they date back to the for Democrats, Obama’s reform agenda quickly faced for-middle and even early twentieth century—the “sub- midable obstacles, two of which have been highlightedmerged state” has become a formidable presence in the often by political observers. First, partisan polarization hasUnited States particularly over the past twenty-five years. I been on the rise over the past 15 years, bringing with it anam referring here to a conglomeration of federal social end to the bipartisan compromises on social legislationpolicies that incentivize and subsidize activities engaged that occurred more regularly in the mid-twentieth century.3in by private actors and individuals. These feature a vari- As a presidential candidate, Obama often articulated aety of tools, including social benefits in the form of tax yearning to overcome such division. Yet, in the first yearbreaks for individuals and families; the regulation and tax- of the 110th Congress, polarization levels reached theirfree nature of benefits provided by private employers, highest levels yet since the end of Reconstruction; indeed,including health care benefits in the form of insurance; aside from three Republican senators who supportedand the government-sponsored enterprises and third- Obama’s first major piece of legislation, the American804 Perspectives on Politics
  3. 3. Recovery and Reinvestment Act, no Republican in either In putting forward the concept of the “submerged state,”chamber has voted in favor of his major social welfare I am building on pioneering work by various scholarspriorities on final passage.4 about the more obscure but immense aspects of American Second, although Republicans make up the minority of social policy. In a brief article in 1979, Paul Starr andthe U.S. Senate, the chamber’s basis of representation and Gosta Esping-Andersen argued that in the United States,rules combined with current political geography gives them social policy has often been created in the form of “passivesignificantly more power than the election returns would intervention,” through which established interests—suggest. As has been the case since the Founding, the assign- which would have fought againstsweeping reform, forment of equal numbers of Senators to states with unequal example in the areas of housing and health care reform—representation advantages states with fewer residents. These have been accommodated through policy designs that chan-disparities can be quite extreme: today, for each individual nel expensive subsidies and incentives toward them.8 Morerepresented by a Senator from Wyoming, a Senator from recently, separate components of such governance haveCalifornia represents 69 individuals. Overall, the partisan been examined in depth and detail through a few brilliantcomposition of the current Senate gives a representational studies. Christopher Howard exposed what he termed thebias to Republicans, since they are more likely than Dem- “hidden welfare state” of tax expenditures, showing that itocrats to represent states with small populations, and vice competes in size, scope, and functions with the visible,versa.5 While the actual extent of this bias may appear traditional social programs, but that it generates distinctmodest, it is of critical importance because it enables the political dynamics.9 Jacob Hacker revealed the politics ofRepublicans to reach the threshold level at which they can “private” social protections for retirement pensions andwield effective veto power. Since a rule change in the 1970s, health insurance coverage, meaning those that are pro-Senators in the minority have increasingly been able to vided by employers but regulated and subsidized by gov-use the threat of filibuster to impede the majority’s legis- ernment.10 Kimberly Morgan and Andrea Campbelllative agenda.6 The Democrats controlled 60 votes through- illuminated “delegated governance,” meaning the alloca-out much of 2009, but when Republican Scott Brown tion of authority for many aspects of social welfare policywon the Massachusetts Senate seat of the late Ted Ken- to non-state actors.11 Here I extend insights from thesenedy in January 2010, it ended their ability to pass legis- works, attempting to illuminate the similar political dynam-lation with a filibuster-proof supermajority. ics manifest across a few social welfare policy areas. In While the importance of these political and institu- particular, insights offered by Howard and Hacker directedtional features of the contemporary polity is undeniable, my attention to how the submerged state activates third-focusing on them alone fails to illuminate sufficiently the party interests that benefit from its existence, and yet itpolitics of social policy. They offer no insight as to why remains largely invisible to citizens generally.12Obama’s supporters—so energized during his campaign— While the foundations of the “submerged state” werebecame so quiet with respect to his issue agenda. They do established in the early and mid-twentieth century, itsnot indicate why policymakers have not embraced differ- size and costliness have grown especially in recent decades.ent policies, featuring mechanisms distinct from those Overall, as of 2006, social (non-business) tax expendi-which gained political traction. Nor do they explain why tures accounted for 5.7 percent of GDP, up from 4.2even Obama’s policy achievements confront a public that percent in 1976.13 Today, the largest of these—as seen inappears largely unimpressed if not—like a strong vocal Table 1—emanates from the non-taxable nature of healthminority in the Tea Party Movement—outwardly hostile. insurance benefit provided by employers, followed by the A fuller explanation requires a policy-focused analytical home mortgage interest deduction, and then by tax-freeframework, one that puts existing policy front and center employer-provided retirement benefits. Indicating theand views how it has developed over time.7 Policies cre- scope of these “submerged” dimensions relative to theated or expanded in past decades have shaped the political clearly visible components of social welfare spending, Jacobterrain the Obama administration confronts, and they have Hacker calculated that whereas traditional social publicgenerated powerful dynamics that imperil reform efforts. welfare expenditures amounted to 17.1 percent of GDPSpecifically, we need to understand the character of poli- in the United States in 1995, making the nation a lag-cies of the submerged state and the political effects they gard relative to other OECD nations, the inclusion ofhave yielded across time: the economic actors they have tax expenditures and other private social welfare expen-nurtured, whose ascent as influential players has reshaped ditures brought the total to 24.5 percent of GDP, placingthe political landscape; and their obscurity to most Amer- U.S. spending slightly above average.14 Among tax expen-icans, particularly those of low or moderate incomes. View- ditures, health care costs especially have ballooned overing the past year’s developments through this lens should time, growing (in nominal dollars) from 77.3 billion inallow us to understand why change is so difficult, the 1995 to 137.3 billion in 2007.15 Meanwhile, throughform that it has taken, and the relative degrees of success another policy vehicle that also subsidizes private actorsof various initiatives. to provide social benefits, the Higher Education Act of September 2010 | Vol. 8/No. 3 805
  4. 4. Reflections | Reconstituting the Submerged State Table 1 Largest individual tax expenditures: Year of enactment and cost in 2011 Estimated Cost in 2011 Tax Expenditure Year of Enactment (billions of dollars) Exclusion of employer contributions for medical insurance 1954 177.0 Deductibility of Mortgage interest on owner-occupied homes 1913 104.5 Net exclusion of contributions and earnings for retirement plans 1974 67.1 Deduction of state and local taxes 1913 46.5 Pensions 1914–1926 44.6 Step-up basis of capital gains at death 1921 44.5 Lower tax rates on long-term capital gains 1921 44.3 Deductibility of charitable contributions (other than ed and health) 1917 43.9 Sources: US Budget, Analytical Perspectives, FY 2011; Howard 1997, 176–77.1965 gave incentives to banks to lend to students at low Interest Group Politics and the Submerged Staterates of interest by offering that the federal government Ironically, when policies of the submerged state were firstwould pay half the interest on such loans.16 In 1972, put in place, the affected industries were initially eitherpolicymakers provided further impetus to student lend- indifferent or opposed, but over time they became ardenting by creating the Student Loan Marketing Association defenders of such arrangements. For example, Christo-(SLM, otherwise known as “Sallie Mae”), to provide a pher Howard explains that while tax breaks related to“secondary market” and warehousing facility.17 By the homeownership had long existed, homebuilders and real-1980s and 1990s, student lending became highly lucra- tors only began to mobilize to protect them after Con-tive for lenders but costly to the federal government; in gress began, in the late 1960s, to publish a list of them2009, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that with the annual budget. Such activism paid off: “Between$87 billion could be saved over 10 years if the system of 1967 and 1995, the total cost of the home mortgage inter-subsidizing lenders was terminated entirely and replace est deduction increased by an average of almost 7 percentby direct lending.18 per year, adjusted for inflation.” 20 Similarly, in 1965, bank- Although some individual features of the submerged ers exercised the strongest opposition to the passage ofstate—most notably, the Earned Income Tax Credit— student loan policy, yet by 1993, when the Clinton Admin-mitigate inequality, on net, these policies exacerbate it. First, istration advanced its proposal to replace the existing sys-as seen in Figure 1, they often bestow their benefits in tem with direct lending, they led the fight to preserve thean upwardly distributive fashion, as in the case of the system on which they had come to rely.21charitable contribution and home mortgage interest deduc- Developments over the past 15 years have fosteredtion, and to a lesser extent, the tax-free nature of employer- change in the degree and form of activism undertaken bysponsored health insurance. Second, according to Starr and these types of organizations, such that the Obama Admin-Esping-Andersen, such policies compound these inequality- istration confronted highly sophisticated efforts to protectgenerating effects. They promote consumption of higher- the status quo. Notably, the president’s agenda implicatedpriced goods than individuals might choose otherwise, for industries especially in the financial, insurance, and realinstance as they buy bigger houses than they would in the estate sector—the same ones that have, collectively, pro-absence of tax incentives. Inflated prices result, which makes cured the greatest profits in the American economy overnon-recipients of such incentives (e.g., renters) unable to the past quarter-century. Frank Levy and Peter Temlinparticipate in the market, and this further promotes inequal- show that since 1980, most private industries have expe-ity. In addition, the lost revenues or excessive spending asso- rienced, at best, slow and steady growth. In the finance,ciated with operating the submerged state functions as insurance, and real estate sector, however, profits spiked,“opportunity costs,” leaving government with insufficient vastly outpacing growth in other sectors.22 The fortunesfunds to maintain or create policies that could more effec- of these industries emanated not from “market forces”tively enhance the social welfare of low and moderate income alone but rather from their interplay with policies of thecitizens.19 This is illustrated by the growth in spending, over submerged state that promoted their growth and heapedmuch of the past quarter-century, of student loans and tax extra benefits on them.credits for higher education, while the real value of Pell Take, for example, student lending, administered byGrants—a more effective tool for financing college for low- banks and organizations within the financial sector. Dur-income students—deteriorated in real value. ing the 1980s and 1990s, tuition outpaced inflation and806 Perspectives on Politics
  5. 5. Figure 1Percentage of tax subsidy funds claimed by households, by income, 2004Sources: IRS Statistics of Income 2004; Leonard E. Burman, Bowen Garrett, and Surachai Khitatrakan, “The Tax Code, EmployerSponsored Insurance, and The Distribution of Tax Subsidies,” in Using Taxes to Reform Health Insurance: Pitfalls and Promises, ed.Henry J. Aaron, Leonard Burman. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2008.policymakers at the national and state level failed to main-tain a constant level of funding for grants and public uni- Table 2versities and colleges.23 Amid the growing partisan divide Spending on lobbying by top five sectors,in Congress, policymakers found consensus more easily 1998–2009on student loans, for which they expanded borrowing lim- Sector Totalits and loosened eligibility requirements. As a result, the Finance, insurance, and real estate $3,892,669,529number and average amount of loans grew dramatically, Health $3,788,417,114as did lenders’ profits. After lawmakers in 1996 permitted Miscellaneous business $3,639,000,728 Communications/electronics $3,210,880,162Sallie Mae to reorganize as a private company, over the Energy and natural resources $2,741,276,475next decade its stocks returned nearly 2000 percent, com- Source: Center for Responsive Politics, to the S&P 500’s average 228 percent gain, and itsCEO became the most highly compensated in the nation,with approximately $37 million in salary, bonuses, andstock awards in 2006.24 Similarly, existing political-economic arrangements bestowed extra benefits on the 1998 and 2009, it invested $3.892 billion dollars onthriving health insurance and real estate industries. lobbying. In turn, soaring profits permitted these industries to Although the Republican leadership aggressively pro-invest in their political capacity to protect the policies that moted the interests of such industries over the past decadehave served them well. Over the past decade, the finance, and a half, their trade organizations deftly avoided com-insurance, and real estate sector has poured considerable mitting themselves to an exclusive partisan relationship andresources into both campaign contributions and lobby- instead maintained their traditional multi-pronged, bipar-ing, outspending all other sectors in both domains and tisan approach.26 First, they strived to maintain andrapidly increasing its spending over time. In the 2008 strengthen relationships with elected officials who areelection, it spent $457.4 million on campaigns, combin- inclined to support them—predominantly Republicans buting contributions to candidate committees, leadership also some moderate Democrats—by providing them withPACs, and party committees.25 As seen in Table 2, between information, hearing their ideas, and ensuring that they will September 2010 | Vol. 8/No. 3 807
  6. 6. Reflections | Reconstituting the Submerged Stateexert the energy to represent them effectively.27 Second, on This is not surprising, because in taking on the sub-issues characterized by a rigid partisan divide, interest groups merged state, Obama engaged in a set of battles over pol-often focused on converting a few individuals to vote for icies that are obscure if not invisible to much of the public.their favored position. Although political scientists have usu- In fact, even individuals who have themselves utilized suchally found little evidence of success at such efforts, none- policies may have little awareness of them as public socialtheless their frequency need not be great in order to alter benefits. Because few existing surveys permit us to exam-outcomes; currently, just destabilizing one senator’s sup- ine citizens’ perceptions and experiences of such policiesport for an issue can be enough to thwart action on a major compared to more visible ones, I designed the Social andissue.28 Third, interest groups have generally sought to cul- Governmental Issues and Participation Study of 2008 (here-tivate cordial relationships with candidates and elected offi- after, referred to as “Governmental Issues Survey”) to docials on both “sides of the aisle,” as evidenced by the fact so.32 Respondents were asked, first, whether they had “everthat their campaign contributions are typically distributed used a government social program, or not.” Later, theywidely to both parties, with a slight edge to the party hold- were asked whether they had ever benefitted personallying or expected to win the majority. This may help explain from any of 19 federal social policies, including some thatwhy on some issues, even in today’s highly partisan envi- belong to the “submerged state” and others that are visibleronment, industries can count on support from both Repub- and direct in their design and delivery. Table 3 presentslicans and Democrats, as we will see. the percentage of beneficiaries of each of several policies Few organizations, by contrast, represent the general who reported that they had never used a federal socialpublic on social welfare issues, particularly those involv- program. Notably, the six italicized policies that head theing policies of the submerged state. Since the 1970s, the list are precisely those belonging to the submerged state:large broad-based membership groups that previously tax-deferred savings accounts, several tax expenditures, andserved as vehicles for articulating the preferences of the student loans. Given the design and manner of delivery ofgeneral public have dwindled in size; in national politics, these policies, few individuals seem to perceive them to bethey have been replaced by advocacy organizations with social benefits. Such dynamics may imperil the politicalno grassroots base and thus lacking comparable organiz- effectiveness of reforms that are limited to expansions oring capacity and political effectiveness.29 Moreover, unlike modifications of the submerged state.visible policies that more readily attract group loyalty, pol- Elected officials often seem to assume, furthermore,icies of the submerged state are typically too hidden and that providing tax breaks will alter citizens’ attitudes abouttheir status too unclear to generate such affiliations.30 their taxes, but the evidence suggests otherwise. I exam-Finally, some membership organizations—namely unions ined whether individuals’ views that they paid more thanand the AARP—have sometimes made compromises that their “fair share” in federal taxes might be mitigated byhave positioned them as either defenders of existing arrange- their receipt of tax expenditures, which effectively light-ments or as less-than-ardent advocates for reform.31 ened their tax burden. Interestingly, this appears not to Yet, while the interest groups that have been nurtured be the case. When Americans were asked their viewsby the submerged state are formidable, their power to about federal income taxes, 56 percent reported that theyimpede reform is not absolute. Change is possible when, were asked to pay their “fair share,” whereas 40 percentfor example, the political credibility of such groups becomes said they paid “more than their fair share.” 33 The analy-sullied, changing circumstances lead them to alter their sis of the “tax break model” in the first column of Table 4position, or new policy compromises enable them to be shows that while the number of tax expenditures individ-on the side of reform. As we will see, the Obama admin- uals report utilizing (including the home mortgage inter-istration has enjoyed the benefit of a few such openings. est deduction, 529 or Coverdell accounts, HOPE or Lifetime Learning Tax Credits, or Child and DependentMass Politics and the Submerged State Care Tax Credit) positively relates to their views of taxBy contrast to the 2008 presidential campaign, when fairly fairness, the relationship is not statistically significant.34high rates of citizen involvement and electoral turnout Paradoxically, these policies, although they permit indi-helped usher Obama into office, since his inauguration viduals to pay significantly less in taxes, do not alter theirsupportive mass publics have been characterized by rela- view about the tax system. Instead, determinants of thistive quiescence. Certainly some mobilization has occurred view include education (those who have more educationamong the new grassroots component of the Democratic are more likely to perceive the system to be fair) andNational Committee, “Organizing for America,” and income (those who have less income perceive the system“Health Care for America Now,” a coalition of several to be fair), among other factors.unions, MoveOn, Planned Parenthood, and other groups. By contrast, experiences of benefiting from direct visibleYet the most evident popular momentum has taken place federal social programs do appear to influence individuals’among conservative opponents—as indicated by the Tea views of tax fairness in a salutary manner. The “direct socialParty movement. program model,” shown in the right-hand column of Table 4,808 Perspectives on Politics
  7. 7. Table 3 Percentage of program beneficiaries who report that they “have not used a government social program” “No, Have Not Used a Program Government Social Program” 529 or Coverdell 64.3 Home Mortgage Interest Deduction 60.0 Hope or Lifetime Learning Tax Credit 59.6 Student Loans 53.3 Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit 51.7 Earned Income Tax Credit 47.1 Social Security—Retirement & Survivors 44.1 Pell Grants 43.1 Unemployment Insurance 43.0 Veterans Benefits (other than G.I. Bill) 41.7 G.I. Bill 40.3 Medicare 39.8 Head Start 37.2 Social Security Disability 28.7 SSI—Supplemental Security Income 28.2 Medicaid 27.8 Welfare/Public Assistance 27.4 Government Subsidized Housing 27.4 Food Stamps 25.4 Source: Social and Governmental Issues and Participation Study, 2008. Note: Submerged state policies shown in italics.replaces the tax breaks variable with the sum of the number one out of three respondents responded that they did notof traditional, visible social programs individuals have ever know or had no opinion.35utilized. Those who had used a greater number of visible The same study also suggested, however, that the “sub-programs were significantly more likely to report that they merged state” need not necessarily remain hidden from ordi-paid their “fair share” in taxes; other results remained con- nary Americans and visible only to entrenched powerfulsistent with those in the first model.Thus, individuals’ sense interests. When respondents were provided with basic factsof having benefitted from government through visible social about how such policies function and then asked their views,programs appears to mitigate their sense of being burdened the ranks of the uninformed fell to less than one in five:by it through taxes. Conversely, usage of policies embed- simple, clear, policy-relevant information facilitated opin-ded in the submerged state—the types of policies on which ion expression among citizens, particularly those with at leastObama’s efforts have focused—do not. In short, the expan- moderate levels of political knowledge. After respondentssion of policies in the submerged state, even if they are aimed were provided with basic information about the distribu-at low- and moderate-income Americans rather than the tive effect of the home mortgage interest deduction—themore typical affluent recipients, may do little to engender fact that it benefits mostly affluent people—opposition grewpositive attitudes among recipients toward such policies— sharply, particularly among those with low to moderateor, quite likely, toward the political leaders who helped bring incomes and among liberals and Democrats. By contrast,them into being. after being informed that the EITC benefitted mostly those Neither do citizens exhibit much understanding of how in low-moderate income groups, support grew among respon-policies in the submerged state function nor of the upwardly dents generally, regardless of income.36 This implies that ifredistributive bias many of them possess; thus they do not policymakers would reveal the features of the submergedcomprehend what is at stake in policy battles surrounding state and what is at stake in reform efforts through clearthem. This is not surprising, given that political elites com- communication with citizens, they could foster greatermunicate about such policies rarely, and when they do, it understanding of and support for typically in muted, oblique, and contradictory ways. An In short, in attempting to create or alter policies withinexperimental study to test how the provision of informa- the submerged state, reformers engage in a high-risktion about tax expenditures influenced attitudes about them endeavor in which the challenges are great and the polit-found that when citizens were asked outright whether they ical rewards may be very few. Their opponents will likelysupported particular examples of such policies, typically meet them quickly, armed and ready for battle, whereas September 2010 | Vol. 8/No. 3 809
  8. 8. Reflections | Reconstituting the Submerged State Table 4 Effects of extent of tax expenditures and direct social program usage experiences on perception of fairness of federal income taxes (OLS Regression) Tax Break Model Direct Social Program Model Year of Birth −.001 .000 (.001) (.001) Educational Level .029**** .029**** (.008) (.008) Income −.028**** −.020*** (.007) (.007) African American −.212**** −.228**** (.041) (.042) Hispanic −.093* −.082* (.049) (.049) Female −.130**** −.129**** (.030) (.030) Sum of Usage of 4 Tax Expenditures .018 (.019) Sum of Direct Federal Social Programs Ever Used .018** (.008) R2 .053 .053 Adjusted R 2 .047 .048 N 1250 1256 Source: Social and Governmental Issues and Participation Study, 2008. *p < .10, **p < .05, ***p < .01, ****p < .001; Cells show unstandardized coefficients, with standard errors in parentheses. Note: Tax fairness variable is coded as 1, “more than fair share;” 2, “asked to pay fair share;” and 3, “less than fair share.”their supporters and those of behalf of whom they engage bility could benefit from them. Such ideas drew inspira-in such struggles are unlikely to even appreciate their efforts tion from the emerging field of behavioral economics,not to mention offer assistance. Reconstituting the sub- “the integration of economics and the psychology of pref-merged state successfully, then, requires that reformers pay erence formation and choice,” an approach embraced byapt attention to conveying what is at stake to the public, several of his advisors.37through political communication, policy design, and themanner of program delivery. Early Action: The Economic Stimulus Bill With the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ofTax Expenditures 2009, otherwise known as the stimulus bill, PresidentObama considers tax policy a centerpiece of his domestic Obama scored several victories for his agenda within fiveagenda, particularly for purposes related to social welfare. weeks of taking office. Although this law resembled leg-He looks to it to reallocate priorities, devote resources to a islation enacted during Roosevelt’s First Hundred Dayswide array of purposes, mitigate rising economic inequal- inasmuch as it aimed to revive a devastated economy, itity, and not least, raise revenues for health care reform. differed dramatically by making tax breaks the primaryDuring the presidential campaign, Obama articulated three vehicle for offering relief to most Americans: in total,goals linking tax policy and social welfare: first, he planned they amounted to $288 billion, fully 37 percent of theto allow the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts for the most entire $787 billion dollar stimulus package.38 The largestaffluent Americans to expire, restoring the higher rates on of these was the president’s signature proposal, “Makingincome, capital gains, and dividends that existed previ- Work Pay” Tax Credits, which was based on principlesously; second, he sought to scale back the regressivity of like those of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) buttax expenditures that favored the wealthy, restoring rules reached well up into the middle class: individuals withthat had existed prior to the 2001 tax cuts; and third, he incomes below $75,000 and married couples with incomesaimed to channel a higher proportion of tax expenditures up to $150,000 qualified for this credit of up to $ low and moderate income people, through both the Second, as a means to make college more affordable, thecreation of new policies and alterations to existing ones. “American Opportunity Education Tax Credit” offeredFor instance, he planned to make new and existing tax up to $2500 to reimburse low and moderate-income fam-breaks “refundable,” such that even those with no tax lia- ilies for tuition costs.39 The bill also included several810 Perspectives on Politics
  9. 9. other tax features, including: increases in the EITC and own party. Fellow Democrat Max Baucus (MT), Chair ofchild tax credit; one-time payments of $250 to recipients the Senate Finance Committee, cautioned that “some ofof Social Security, SSI, Railroad Retirement, Veterans’ the reforms and offsets . . . such as the limitations on item-Disability Compensation, and some federal and state pen- ized deductions, raise concerns and will require more studysions; tax credits of up to $8000 for first-time home as we determine the best policies for getting America backbuyers; and several others.40 on track”.43 In the House, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer The stimulus bill achieved the president’s goals of chan- (MD) warned, “That’s going to be controversial. And,neling funds toward low to moderate income Americans, obviously, charitable contributions . . . [present] great con-but it did so by further expanding the submerged state. In cern. Clearly, one of their greatest concerns will be very,political terms, with over one out of three dollars in the very large-income donors who make very substantial con-stimulus bill tucked into tax breaks rather than in more tributions to very worthwhile enterprises.” 44 Charles Ran-obvious forms of social welfare such as relief payments or gel (NY), Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee,job creation, it was not certain that Americans would clearly also expressed reservations, noting, “I would never wantrecognize that the extra funds they received or did not to adversely affect anything that is charitable or good.” 45owe in taxes owed to Obama’s efforts. One year later, when What could explain such swift opposition—even froma CBS poll asked, “In general, do you think the Obama fellow Democrats—to modifying these tax breaks for theAdministration has increased taxes for most Americans, wealthy? The answer likely lies in the political power pos-decreased taxes for most Americans, or have they kept sessed by the organized groups that benefit from suchtaxes the same for most Americans?” only 12 percent provisions, starting with the real estate lobby. On the dayresponded that taxes had been decreased. In fact, 24 per- Obama presented his budget, Charles McMillan, Presi-cent believed that the new president had increased taxes dent of the National Association of Realtors, wrote to himfor most Americans.41 Remarkably, although 95 percent voicing opposition to proposed changes to the Home Mort-of employed Americans owed less in taxes thanks to the gage Interest Deduction (MID). He argued that “dimin-“Making Work Pay” tax credit in the stimulus, a policy ishing or eliminating the MID would hurt all families, theprojected to cost $536 billion over ten years, most were housing market, and our national economy. . . . At a timeunaware of it. Through an innovation prompted by behav- when our housing and real estate markets are suffering, weioral economists who reasoned that small amounts of funds believe it would be irresponsible for the real estate indus-made available gradually would stimulate spending more try and federal policymakers to consider, much less sup-reliably than a lump sum reimbursement, the new credit port, any proposal seeking to alter the MID.” 46 Thehad been paid out automatically in the form of slightly organization circulated similar letters to all senators andlarger earnings in workers’ paychecks throughout 2009. representatives in Congress and published ads expressingWhile this approach may have prompted more spending, its opposition in several newspapers.47 The Financial Ser-as intended, it seems not to have yielded enduring recog- vices Roundtable, Mortgage Bankers Association, and thenition of Obama’s first major accomplishment in social National Association of Home Builders also quicklywelfare policy. announced their opposition to any alterations to the real estate tax deductions.48Obstacles to Scaling Back Regressivity Such letters and ads carried weight because the real estateIn February 2009, President Obama presented to Congress lobby had cultivated relationships with politicians from bothhis first budget, one that contained nearly all of his cam- parties and had done so over a long period of time and withpaign promises for changes in the tax code, including plans an increasingly intense commitment of resources in recentto scale back the regressivity of some tax expenditures. years. In the size of its campaign contributions, it rankedObama proposed that those in the top two tax brackets—36 among the most generous six industries in every electoraland 39.6 percent—should have their deductions, such as cycle at least since 1990. The $136 million it spent in thethose for home mortgage interest and charitable contribu- 2008 election—combining contributions from its PACs,tions, limited to their value at the 28 percent tax bracket.42 soft money, and individual donors—was distributed widely:As seen in Figure 1 above, those two tax deductions are espe- every member of the US House received contributions thatcially regressive and thus altering them would facilitate averaged $54,000, and every senator received an average ofprogress on Obama’s goal of reducing inequality. The pres- $401,000. Moreover, during 2009, the industry spent overident planned to use the saved revenues—projected to sixty-five million on lobbying activities.The National Asso-amount to $267 billion over ten years—to help finance ciation of Realtors alone invested $19,669,268 in such activ-health care reform, for which they would provide approx- ities, making it the tenth biggest spender across all types ofimately 45 percent of the needed funds. organizations in the nation. While its prominence in such On Capitol Hill, however, this plan met instantly with activities is nothing new, the amount it invests in politicsantipathy from Republicans and it received a less-than- annually has soared over time, nearly quadrupling in justenthusiastic reception even from some in the President’s the past decade.49 September 2010 | Vol. 8/No. 3 811
  10. 10. Reflections | Reconstituting the Submerged State Though it may seem surprising, charitable organizations is it would equalize. When I give $100, I get the same amount ofbehaved very similarly to those in the real estate industry, deduction as . . . a bus driver who’s making $50,000 a year or $40,000 a year gives that same hundred dollars. Right now, hespending considerable sums to protect their self-interest by gets 28 percent—he gets to write off 28 percent, I get to write offprotesting to the Obama administration’s proposed changes 39 percent. I don’t think that’s fair.55in the tax code. The non-profits, foundations, and philan-thropy sector spent less on such efforts than the real estate Yet never did Obama offer a major speech in which heindustry, but still invested considerably: it spent just one- explained to the American public with similar clarity howeighth as much in campaign contributions in the 2008 elec- such policies work and what difference proposed changestion ($18 million), but fully half as much on lobbying in would make and for whom. The issue thus remained largely2009—a total of about $38 million.50 Philanthropists them- invisible to the public. Without a concerted effort by theselves appeared to be divided on whether a change in the tax president to promote it and in the absence of public mobi-law would adversely affect charitable giving, some predict- lization, the administration’s plan continued to lose that its influence would be minor and far outweighedby the value of the achievement of health care reform.51 Taking StockNonetheless, trade associations such as the Council on Foun- Obama came into office with ambitious plans for restruc-dations actively fought the Obama administration’s propos- turing tax expenditures and undercutting their upwardlyals.52 Throughout the ensuing debates, policymakers of both redistributive bias. In his first year, he succeeded only in hisparties invoked the moral high ground associated with the goal of creating new tax breaks—at least temporary ones—philanthropic sector by expressing concerns about it far more for low to middle-income households. But these policiesthan the real estate industry; such arguments quickly derailed further add to the size and scope of the submerged state,the administration’s primary plan for financing health care and they are imperceptible to most Americans.reform. Given that the submerged state is not nearly as visible By late March, just one month after Obama introduced to most Americans as it is to the interest groups that ben-his proposal, the Senate had already taken action to sty- efit from it, the task falls to reformers to reveal its keymie the administration’s efforts to modify the two most features to the public. An analysis of all speeches, pressregressive tax deductions. At Baucus’ urging, Democrats conferences, and weekly addresses given by Obama him-endorsed a proposal offered by Republican Senator Bob self between his Inauguration in January 2009 throughBennett (UT) requiring that health care funding not be March of 2010 shows that he spoke about taxes 38 times.financed through alteration of the tax benefits tied to char- As seen in Figure 2, taxes were a common theme in Feb-itable contributions.53 A few weeks later, when the Senate ruary 2009, when Obama gave speeches focusing on theFinance Committee released a report listing policy options tax breaks that were part of the stimulus. After that, how-for raising revenues to finance health care reform, it offered ever, though the subject came up fairly often, it was in theno discussion of Obama’s preferred approach.54 context of speeches about health care reform, and took From the start the administration had sought to avoid the form of brief comments about either financing or incen-difficulties faced by Clinton’s health care plan by leaving it tives and mechanisms through which the policy wouldto Congress to devise plans, and thus the president refrained operate. As indicated by the lined sections of the bars,from strongly promoting the financing plan he favored. furthermore, even direct references to taxes rarely involvedDuring a prime-time news conference in March, a reporter statements that made explicit the actual features of theasked him whether he was reconsidering his approach of submerged state. Content analysis of the speeches revealedcutting back deductions for mortgages and charities, and that only on eight of the 38 occasions did the presidentwhether he regretted having proposed it in the first place. actually describe how such policies functioned and whoObama answered, “No, I think it’s the right thing to do.” benefitted. Such statements, moreover, were usually veryReferring to the rise of economic inequality, he defended brief: the statement in the March 2009 press conferencehis approach as a way to “raise some revenues from people mentioned earlier, for instance, occupied only 446 wordswho benefitted enormously over the last several years.” in the midst of a 9000 word news conference.56 The pres-Then in a statement that was unusual for an elected offi- ident refrained from making a full and sustained case forcial in its candor at revealing how an aspect of the sub- the financing plans his Administration put forward, andmerged state functions, he explained: the public remained quite uninformed. By contrast, groups benefitting from existing arrange- People are still going to be able to make charitable contributions. ments continued to be astutely aware of developments It just means if you give $100 and you’re in this tax bracket, at a and poised to act when necessary to protect the status certain point, instead of being able to write off 36 (percent) or quo. As 2009 came to a close, the National Association of 39 percent, you’re writing off 28 percent. Now, if it’s really a charitable contribution, I’m assuming that that shouldn’t be the Realtors applauded itself for effectively “protecting the determining factor as to whether you’re giving that hundred dol- mortgage interest deduction,” noting that it had “aggres- lars to the homeless shelter down the street. . . . what it would do sively fought off changes to the MID through grassroots,812 Perspectives on Politics
  11. 11. Figure 2Obama’s public statements on tax policy: Revealing the submerged state, Feb. ’09–Mar. ’10advertising and similar advocacy tools.” 57 Subsequently, his initial goals the full replacement of existing systemreformers had to seek other means for financing health with direct lending. Suddenly, the lenders mobilized ascare reform, favoring alternatives that did not provoke never before and a bitter fight ensued. Congress adoptedsuch vociferous opposition among groups that benefitted only a weakened version of Clinton’s plan, permitting thefrom existing arrangements. adoption of direct lending on a limited basis. By the time Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, the twoHigher Education Policy parties had effectively traded the positions they had eachA few decades ago, the United States led the world in the held on student lending just one decade previous, andattainment of bachelor’s degrees, but progress has stalled, they had adopted more stringent versions of each.59particularly because of stagnating graduation rates among As student lenders’ profits soared between 1995 andthose from less advantaged backgrounds.58 Obama’s ambi- 2006, they invested in strengthening their political capac-tion to restore American leadership in college graduation ity. In campaign financing, Sallie Mae established a PACrates required, first, a restructuring of entrenched policy in the late 1990s, and by 2006 it emerged as the toparrangements, namely a subsidized lending system that donor within the entire finance and credit industry; fel-has consumed funds that could have been spent instead to low student lender Nelnet ranked fifth.60 In lobbying,foster access, and which has, meanwhile, fostered increas- Sallie Mae began to rank among the top five finance andingly divisive politics over the past decade and a half. credit companies, outspending even Mastercard and Amer- After enacting the legislation establishing student loans, ican Express.61 Lenders also worked together to createthe Higher Education Act of 1965, Democrats positioned several new organizations to represent their interests inthemselves as the program’s protector, while Republicans Washington, DC. Over this period, Republicans in Con-continued to object—as they had at its inception—to chan- gress increasingly worked in tandem with lenders, attempt-neling government subsidies toward lenders. By the late ing to seek favorable rates and terms for them.1980s, however, members of both parties became aware Late in 2006, however, the lenders’ stature began tothat student lending was expanding into a highly lucrative decline. Heightened voter participation by young peoplebusiness, and the politics surrounding it began to shift. and investigative reports into lender practices by a fewAn official in the George H.W. Bush administration journalists caught Democrats’ attention. After regaininghatched the idea of direct lending by government— control of the House in 2007, they unveiled higher edu-cutting out the banks as intermediaries—as a means to cation legislation that put lenders on the defensive. Newreduce overall spending for loans. A bipartisan group of York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo then launchedCongressmen led by Senator Paul Simon (D-IL) pro- an investigation, charging that financial aid officers in manymoted the idea and won support for a pilot program in colleges and universities maintained improper relation-the 1992 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. In ships with “preferred lenders.” An internal investigation1993, newly-elected President Bill Clinton made one of in the Department of Education indicated that Bush September 2010 | Vol. 8/No. 3 813
  12. 12. Reflections | Reconstituting the Submerged StateFigure 3Frequency of Obama’s public statements on social welfare issues, compared, Feb. ’09–Mar. ’10Administration appointees had given tacit approval to such the same money in our students, in our economy, and in ourarrangements.62 In turn, in 2007 and 2008 Congress country.64enacted and Bush signed into law two bills that put new Continuing, the president directly and forcefully took onconstraints on lenders, one by placing restrictions on how the lenders:colleges interacted with them and the other, by loweringsubsidies and using the savings to finance increased stu- The banks and the lenders who have reaped a windfall fromdent aid funding.63 Thus, when Obama took office, the these subsidies have mobilized an army of lobbyists to try tobattles he supported were already underway on the stu- keep things the way they are. They are gearing up for battle. So am I. They will fight for their special interests. I will fight for . . .dent aid front, and the opposition had been dealt several American students and their families. And for those who careblows. about America’s future, this is a battle we can’t afford to lose.65 As we have seen, Obama readily achieved the AmericanOpportunity Tax Credit as part of the stimulus bill. In By summer, however, health care reform efforts consumed2009, Congress also boosted Pell Grant maximum grant the administration’s attention and the president rarely spokerates to $5550, continuing a trend of recent years. In about higher education.addition, Obama—like Clinton—aimed to replace the As seen in Figure 3, Obama discussed higher educationexisting student loan policy with 100 percent direct lend- issues publicly only 9 times during his fourteen months ining, a goal that involves reconstituting the political econ- office, compared to 68 times for health care and 38 foromy of the submerged state. He proposed to use the savings taxes. Figure 4 reveals that when speaking about higherfrom the termination of lender subsidies to make Pell education, Obama did usually make explicit the featuresGrants an entitlement. Both objectives were articulated in of the submerged state with respect to student lending.the administration’s first budget. He likely felt freer to do so on this issue because others— Cuomo, the Department of Education Inspector General, and Democratic leaders in Congress—had already begunTaking on the Lenders the process. Yet because the president spoke about it soJust a few months into his presidency, Obama delivered a infrequently and it was vastly overshadowed by the focusspeech that revealed the inner workings of the submerged on health care, the issues at stake likely remained hiddenstate with respect to student lending: to most Americans. Under the FFEL [Federal Family Education Loans] program, lenders get a big government subsidy with every loan they make. The Lenders Fight Back And these loans are then guaranteed with taxpayer money, which The lenders, by contrast, continued to focus on the issue. means that if a student defaults, a lender can get back almost all Realizing that existing arrangements were unlikely to of its money from our government . . . . taxpayers are paying banks a premium to act as middlemen—a premium that costs endure, in July 2009 they put forward a proposal that the American people billions of dollars each year. . . . Well, that’s ceded ground to the administration by assuming the end a premium we cannot afford—not when we could be investing of subsidies to lenders. Nonetheless, the plan featured a814 Perspectives on Politics
  13. 13. Figure 4Obama’s public statements on higher education policy: Revealing the submerged state, Feb.’09–Mar. ’10continuing role for themselves: they would originate, ser- a role for lenders. At a rally of company employees, hun-vice, and collect payments on student loans, in exchange dreds of whom donned matching tee-shirts that read “Pro-for fees paid to them by government. tect Indiana Jobs,” Sallie Mae CEO Albert Lord attempted The House of Representatives quickly repudiated the to stir populist anger, declaring, “There’s Washington, andlenders’ plan. Education and Labor Committee Chair- then there’s the rest of the country. This is the rest of theman George Miller spoke out against it and introduced country.” 69 Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, lenders sethis own bill, one that followed Obama’s lead on core prin- the goal of gaining support from at least five moderateciples and effectively ended the FFEL program. The Com- Democratic Senators to retain the FFEL program, andmittee approved a version that met the president partway: they spent millions on lobbying.70 Sallie Mae alone devotedon Pell Grants, it recommended regular annual increases over $4 million to such activities in 2009, the second-but retention of discretionary authority for Congress to largest amount it had ever spent in one year.set the base award, and on student loans, it permitted By November, the lenders appeared to be gaininglenders to compete to service loans but not to originate ground: analysts predicted that Obama’s proposal lackedthem.66 In September, the full House approved the the support of enough Senators to pass.71 The next month,measure.67 Democratic Bob Casey from Pennsylvania led 11 mod- In the Senate, however, it appeared that changes to erate Democrats in support of an alternative to the Housestudent lending would prove more contentious. Already bill that would allow lenders to continue to originatein the spring of 2009, Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson, in government-backed loans and to be awarded fees by thewhose state lender Nelnet employs one thousand individ- federal government for doing so.72 The prospects for theuals, voiced his opposition to direct lending.68 Senate achievement of Obama’s goals looked increasingly uncer-leaders decided to put the issue on hold while grappling tain. Similar to the tax policy realm, vested interests ofwith health care legislation. Senate rules permit per ses- the submerged state seemed far more aware of what wassion just one budget reconciliation vote, in which a sim- at stake in reform efforts than did ordinary citizens, andple majority—unstoppable by filibuster—may approve they were mobilized whereas the general public remainedlegislation that is strictly related to the budget. Leaders quiescent.realized that they might ultimately need to combine ele- Remarkably, however, in an eleventh hour stroke of goodments of the higher education policy with health care fortune for the Obama administration, Democratic leadersreform in such a bill, so they delayed action throughout ultimately found that including the higher education leg-the autumn. islation with health care reform in the March 2010 budget Lenders used the delay to organize the opposition, both reconciliation bill helped it to meet the criteria for cost-at the grassroots and elite levels. Sallie Mae mobilized work- savings that would help ensure passage. Despite the dimers and residents in towns where it employs the greatest prospects in December for the administration’s higher edu-numbers. In Fishers, Indiana, for example, over 81,000 cation proposals to acquire support from even 50 Demo-individuals signed a petition urging Congress to preserve cratic Senators, 56 came on board when the direct lending September 2010 | Vol. 8/No. 3 815
  14. 14. Reflections | Reconstituting the Submerged Stateplan that some disliked was combined with the party’s top ism preceded the development of existing policies. Theagenda item, health care reform. In what represented the American Medical Association (AMA), for instance,most significant shift from submerged to visible gover- opposed national health insurance as early as 1920 andnance achieved by Obama to date, the existing system of impeded its inclusion in New Deal legislation.78 Healthstudent lending was terminated and replaced entirely by insurance companies sought and achieved special tax-direct lending. exempt status in the early twentieth century, and then worked to strengthen and expand their government- subsidized role.79Health Care Reform Health policies, in turn, reshaped politics, particularlyBy 2008, the idea was widely accepted that the U.S. health among labor unions. These organizations found greatercare system was in crisis. Health care costs had climbed to leverage in negotiating with employers for private health16 percentage of the U.S. GDP—more than the percent- insurance benefits than in seeking government-sponsoredage spent in any other OECD nation and twice that of the coverage, so they became lukewarm supporters at best andaverage.73 The nation has long been the only one in that often opposed reform.80 By the 1993–1994 reform cycle,western industrialized world that lacks national health when labor’s power and circumstances had changed dra-insurance, yet the U.S. government itself spends substan- matically from its zenith in the postwar era, it refrainedtially more than other countries on health care—on Medi- from a strong endorsement of Clinton’s plan—in part,care and Medicaid and the subsidization of employer- holding out for a stronger alternative and in part, disillu-provided health care. The percentage of Americans with sioned by the president’s support for the North Americanemployer-provided private insurance benefits fell from 69 Free Trade Agreement.81 In fact, few groups—with thepercent to 60 percent between 2000 and 2005 alone; 74 exception of the American Nurses Association and a coali-one in six Americans were uninsured.75 tion of black and Hispanic doctors—expressed firm sup- As a result, health care reform hit the political agenda port for the Clinton proposal.82again in 2009 as it has approximately every 15 years since Viewed against this daunting history, during 2009 the1920. Each time, the issue has consumed the attention of Obama administration and congressional Democratspolicymakers and the media for months of intense drama, achieved significant success in working together with keyprotracted battles, and deal-making between the political interests—namely doctors, labor, drug companies, andparties and with interest groups.76 That health care reform the AARP—to create a stronger coalition of support forwould require Herculean efforts by the president and con- health care reform than in the past. First, although thegressional leaders was a given; that such efforts would guar- AMA signaled early on that it would oppose a government-antee success was anything but. And yet, this time, the sponsored insurance plan, in a dramatic reversal it lentreformers won. its support. It even endorsed the House plan, complete A full recounting of the tumultuous saga of 2009–2010 with the “public option,” of which it disapproved, becauseand a comprehensive analysis of the issues involved lies well it had won several modifications it favored within thebeyond our scope here. Rather, the analytical framework Medicare payment reform plan.83 Second, organized laborfeatured throughout this article will be utilized to consider played a more active and constructive role in pushing forthe briefly the challenges the Obama administration faced the adoption of health care reform than in the past. Theon the issue and the level of success it has achieved. As much Service Employees International Union (SEIU), AFL-or even more than other aspects of the submerged state, exist- CIO, and American Federation of State, County, anding arrangements for the health care system have long fos- Municipal Employees all strongly supported the adop-tered powerful vested interests, complicating the quest for tion of the “public option,” and thus favored the Housereform. Over the past decade, the amount that strictly health- plan.84 But rather than only disparaging alternatives,related groups have spent on lobbying—$3.788 billion— unions actively promoted the legislation: they ran ads,ranked second only to spending by the finance, insurance, they showed up at town meetings to counter the argu-and real estate sector, and much of the lobbying by the lat- ments of opponents, and they mobilized in states andter industries—as well as by other miscellaneous business districts of swing voters. Said organizer Dennis Rivera,groups—also focused on health care.77 And just as in the “We’re running this . . . like . . . a presidential campaign,other areas of the submerged state, government’s role in sub- and our candidate is health care reform.” 85 Third, thesidizing private actors in the provision of health care is largely pharmaceutical industry cooperated in supporting reform.hidden from ordinary citizens. Although Obama had lambasted it throughout the 2008 campaign, once elected he and Senator Baucus workedInterest Group Politics closely with its leaders—as well as the AARP—to brokerThroughout the long history of struggles over health care an agreement about how to reduce the cost of drugsreform in the United States, interest groups have played purchased through the Medicare prescription drug ben-leading roles—primarily as antagonists. Some of this activ- efit, and its “doughnut hole” provision that required seniors816 Perspectives on Politics
  15. 15. Figure 5Obama’s public statements on health care reform: Feb. ’09–Mar. ’10Sources, figures 2–5: White House Briefing Room Website (, speeches on health care,taxes, and higher education given by Barack Obama (not White House staff) as listed under “Speeches and Remarks” and YourWeekly Address” between January 2009 and March 21, 2010.Note: Health speeches include those during which Obama mentions or discusses health reform. Tax speeches include those duringwhich Obama mentions or discusses tax cuts, tax credits, or tax expenditures (e.g., limiting the itemized deduction). Higher educationspeeches include those during which Obama mentions or discusses higher education, particularly education tax credits (American Oppor-tunity Tax Credit), Pell Grants, student loans, and community colleges. Some speeches are included in multiple categories. For exam-ple, discussions of the American Opportunity Tax Credit are included in both the tax category and the higher education category.Mentions of the limit on itemized deductions are included in both the health category (as a financing option for the overhaul) and in thetax pay the full price of some prescriptions. The result, the real estate industry and charitable organizations. Theirwhile granting some leverage to the drug companies, gen- action thwarted the bill’s progress at a critical junctureerated $80 billion in savings to help finance health care and prompted leaders to advance instead a tax on high-reform, and also brought the AARP on board.86 priced employer-provided health insurance. That plan, While this degree of cooperation among stakeholders because it would have affected a significant number of lowbrought reform closer to being realized than ever before, and moderate income Americans, involved greater politi-some powerful interests remained opposed. Insurance com- cal risks. But that story lies beyond our scope here.panies and business groups, which continued to benefitmost from the existing arrangements of the submerged Revealing Reform to the Publicstate, allied themselves and mobilized vigorously against In using the bully pulpit during his fourteen months inproposed changes. Unlike the drug companies, insurance office, Obama prioritized health care reform. As seen incompanies refused to cooperate in cost cutting. America’s Figure 3, he spoke out on that issue far more than higherHealth Insurance Plans, a trade group of several large insur- education and taxes combined. Possibly the timing of theseance companies, collected funds from its members— speeches, which did not begin until summer, was a bitAetna, Cigna, Humana, and others—to finance television delayed: at that point, opponents had already mobilizedads disparaging the main proposals being developed in to depict the “public option” as a “government takeover”Congress. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce facilitated and to stoke concerns about new taxes on existing healththe ad buys.87 For its part, the Chamber of Commerce benefits, and support had begun to diminish.also poured $144 million into lobbying, outspending all The complexity of health care reform, furthermore,other organizations and businesses during 2009.88 involving efforts to alter practices carried out between gov- As we saw in examining tax policy, the demise of the ernment, employers, and insurance companies, makes itObama administration’s proposed limitations on tax deduc- difficult to explain to the public. As seen in Figure 5,tions for wealthy Americans involved organizations that Obama made public statements on the subject 68 times,might seem to have little to do with health care reform— and on 38 of those occasions he attempted to reveal what September 2010 | Vol. 8/No. 3 817
  16. 16. Reflections | Reconstituting the Submerged Statewas at stake in reconstituting the submerged state in this articulated this view when she called the reform plansarea. In some instances, he described how existing arrange- “elusive.”ments benefitted private interests. For example, at anon-line town hall meeting in July, he said: At Last Time and again, the hopes of reformers have been dashed About two-thirds of the costs of the reforms . . . will come from in the pursuit of health care reform, and yet this time, reallocating money that is already being spent in the health care system but isn’t being spent wisely. So it doesn’t involve more despite the obstacles, they prevailed. After 90 years of effort, spending; it just involves smarter spending. . . . And I’ll just give the achievement is momentous. It promises to expand you one example. . . . Over the next 10 years, we will spend health care coverage to 32 million Americans and, by $177 billion . . . in unwarranted subsidies to insurance compa- imposing new regulations on insurance companies, to grant nies under something called . . . Medicare Advantage. Now, this people greater security that they will not be denied cover- does not make seniors healthier. People who are signed up for this private insurance subsidized program don’t get any better age, for example if they have a pre-existing condition. In care than those who aren’t. The subsidies don’t go to the patients; some significant ways, the policy expands the visible state, they go to the insurance companies. Now, think if we took that particularly by making many more Americans eligible for $177 billion and helped families so that they could have insur- Medicaid. In other ways, however, it enlarges the sub- ance, and that we could have preventive care.89 merged state, by channeling many more toward private insurance and offering them tax breaks to help pay for it.The next month, in Montana, he once again talked about Other aspects of reform use state action to modify thethe need to “eliminate subsidies to insurance companies”: action of private actors. This raises the question: How will“I just think I would rather be giving that money to the Americans view the reformed health care system once it isyoung lady here who doesn’t have health insurance and underway? As accountable to citizens, through govern-giving her some help, than giving it to insurance compa- ment, or as a system that is not subject to public control?nies that are making record profits.” 90 The president also Time will tell, but the Obama administration may influ-tried to explain how differently situated citizens—those ence the outcome, first through how it communicates aboutwith insurance already and those without it—would expe- the meaning of reform and next through the process ofrience the benefits that came with reform. policy delivery. Obama did less, however, to illuminate the cost of healthcare reform and how it would affect ordinary Americans.The public thus likely found little clarity and assurance on Visible and Submerged Successquestions that likely most concerned many: how it would In the realm of social welfare issues, Barack Obama set outbe paid for, and whether and to what extent they person- to transform existing policies within the submerged would be burdened by new costs. Without making He sought to harness this vast set of arrangements and tothese dimensions of the submerged state visible to the make it more inclusive and responsive to the needs ofpublic, Obama may have left uncertain Americans more ordinary citizens, and to curtail the extent to which iteasily swayed by the arguments of opponents, who repeat- channels public funds toward powerful sectors of the econ-edly equated health care reform with higher taxes. omy and affluent citizens. This has been an ambitious While citizens may have received insufficient informa- reform agenda. Such change requires the reconstitution oftion about how reform would affect them, what they could long-established relationships between government and eco-observe clearly in media coverage was the numerous spe- nomic actors. Organizations and industries that have longcial deals that lawmakers made in the process of arriving benefitted from the established system of public subsidiesat a bill. Repeatedly, congressional leaders and the presi- and incentives have been willing and able to invest tre-dent negotiated with stakeholder interest groups and with mendous resources in preserving those arrangements. Par-a handful of individual lawmakers whose votes were deemed adoxically, in defending them, they and their allies incrucial. Each of these interactions resulted in the negoti- elective office officials have routinely depicted reform pro-ation of privileged treatment for particular parties, whether posals as attempts at “government takeovers,” as if to implyNebraskans, union members, or drug companies. While that government were not already central to the existingsuch agreements helped move this major legislation aimed arrangements.for the general public closer to passage, it likely appeared Reconstituting the submerged state has been doubly dif-to many citizens as excessive catering to special interests. ficult because while the stakes have been highly apparent toSuch politics likely strike many—particularly indepen- the groups that have benefitted from them, they were notdents, who have less knowledge of the political process very visible to most Americans. Most people perceived onlygenerally—as undemocratic, and at odds with the open the market at work: they have little awareness that manyand accessible forms of governance Obama had promised social benefits they receive emanate from a submerged stateduring his campaign. Massachusetts voter Marlene Con- that is structured by public policy and subsidized by gov-nally, quoted in one of the quotations opening this paper, ernment. Neither do they realize that many such policies818 Perspectives on Politics
  17. 17. Table 5 Effects of the Obama presidency on the submerged state Reductions in Scope Termination of and New Regulations Existing Programs of Private Actors Expansions in Scope Subsidies for banks/ Subsidies for Employer Provided Making Work Pay Tax Credit lenders of student loans Health Benefits (via tax on “Cadillac plans,” to begin in 2018) American Opportunity Education Tax Credit New regulations of health insurance companies, re: pre-existing conditions, Expansions of several other existing children through age 26, etc. tax credits One-time tax credits: Cash for Clunkers, 1rst-time homebuyers, installation of energy-efficient windows, etc. More individuals to receive subsidized health insurance benefitsdisproportionately benefit wealthy citizens.They are unlikely dynamics that it engenders will continue to challengeto know the extent to which government policy promotes reformers.the profitability of some industries by offsetting their costs Successful reconstitution of the submerged state requiresin serving citizens, whether as consumers or borrowers. The reformers to accomplish several tasks. First, they mustfunctioning and effects of the submerged state remain murky, either regroup or defeat the interest groups that have beenif not largely hidden, to most citizens. empowered by existing arrangements. If circumstances Yet despite the shrouded nature of the submerged state, allow and meaningful agreements can be reached, somecitizens have been able to observe—illuminated in the groups might be brought on board to cooperate in reform,media’s spotlight—the activities of reformers who attempt as the Obama Administration succeeded in doing withto engage in its reconstitution. The problem is that with- respect to health care reform. Outright defeat of groupsout perceiving what is at stake, citizens likely viewed reform- that benefit from current policies is unlikely, given theers as simply playing “politics as usual,” making deals with extent to which they were empowered. It worked in 2010powerful interests. The process of reforming the sub- with respect to student lenders only because those groupsmerged state is inherently messy and conflictual, far from had already been weakened substantially over time: theidealized notions of change. It may have reinforced some creation of pilot programs for direct lending in the earlycitizens’ views that government should not be trusted with 1990s created an entering wedge, a base on which reform-complicated matters, that the private sector can handle ers could build until their ideas became more widelythem better and without such controversy. acceptable. As this indicates, a new policy alternative can In his first fourteen months in office, Barack Obama be established alongside existing arrangements as anaccomplished numerous of his major goals with respect to interim approach that can facilitate more extensive reformsocial welfare policy, as we have seen. Yet, as shown in later on.Table 5, the scorecard indicates that new policies do as Second, reformers must reveal to the public how exist-much or more to expand the submerged state as they do ing policies of the submerged state function and who ben-to reduce its scope. The end of the existing bank-based efits, what is at stake in reform, who will gain and whatsystem of student lending and its replacement with direct the costs will be. In each of the three policy areas consid-lending represents the most significant curtailment of the ered here, Obama has done more than other political lead-submerged state—even though lenders will continue to ers to expose the deeply obscured arrangements, but morehave a role in servicing loans. In the area of tax expendi- focused and sustained attention is warranted. The tasks oftures, the Obama administration achieved the creation of reform may have proceeded more easily throughout 2009–new and expanded policies for low to moderate income 2010 if political leaders had attempted to communicatepeople. Several aspects of health care reform, as discussed to the public earlier, more often, and more deliberatelyabove, also expand on the submerged state. Thus, the sub- about these matters. Even now that reform has beenmerged state endures, albeit in altered form. The political achieved, political leaders need to continue to inform the September 2010 | Vol. 8/No. 3 819