Fred Hochberg, chairman and president of the U.S. Export- Import Bank, is at the center of a fight picked by Republican leaders  in Congress. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Fred Hochberg, chairman and president of the U.S. Export- Import Bank, is at the center of a fight picked by Republican leaders  in Congress. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Kevin Drum makes a (mostly) good point about the big Export-Import Bank fight on Capitol Hill:

What does this say about us? As near as I can tell, this is the most important domestic political battle in the country right now. That's right: reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank. Can you think of anything more trivial? This is a government agency that costs taxpayers nothing -- in fact, it's recorded a profit over the past decade -- and, at worst, will cost us no more than a tiny amount in the future. On the flip side, although reliable figures are hard to come by, its impact on our export business is probably pretty minuscule.

So it costs nothing and has a tiny impact on the economy. And that's what we're fighting over this month. Why? Because there's not much point in fighting over anything that's actually important. Welcome to America in 2014.

Well, yes. But his point is only mostly good, because, in fact, there are a bunch of issues we’re fighting about, and lots of policy is being made -- on immigration, Iraq, Iran, climate, health care, contraception and more.

That is, the policy-making machinery is chugging in the White House, in the executive branch departments and agencies, and in the courts. And in many states.

Where it isn’t happening is on Capitol Hill. Or, to be more precise, in the House. At long as Republicans have the House majority and refuse on “principle” to cut deals with the Democratic majority in the Senate and the president, the legislative part of the policy-making process is dead.

Which, as any observer can plainly see, means Republicans get a lot less out of their House majority than they could. At the very least it means they get less in terms of substantive leverage over policy than they otherwise would. What they get are the symbolic victories to be had from gridlock, along with the symbolic victories of occasionally voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act or of being mean to Attorney General Eric Holder or of suing the president.

Partisan, ideological polarization is no reason to expect Congress to shut down as a policy-making branch. It takes more than that: it requires a strategy by one party (or both) that makes gridlock a better outcome than incremental gains, given the cost of allowing the other side to also get some wins. And that’s what we have now. So Congress is weakened, and the entire system is weakened … but policy-making and the fights over it continue, just not in ways that the system does best.

Yeah, that stinks.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.