This blog offers some concluding thoughts to my previous blog, Redistributing Wealth.
In analyzing the political partisanship and implacable ideologues Fareed Zakaria writing in the 15 August 2011 issue of TIME offers some thoughts about why the American system of government is not able to solve our current fiscal problems:
“American parties now function like European parliamentary ones, ideologically pure and with tight discipline. But we don’t have a European system. In parliamentary systems, power is united so that when, for example, the British Prime Minister’s coalition takes office, it controls the legislative branch as well as the executive. The Prime Minister is, in effect, chief legislator as well as chief executive. The ruling party gets a chance to implement its agenda, and then the public can either re-elect it or throw the bums out. The U.S. system is one of shared and overlapping powers. No one person or party is fully in control; everyone is checked and balanced. People have to cooperate for anything to get done. That is why the Tea Party’s insistence on holding the debt ceiling hostage in order to force its policies on the country–the first time the debt ceiling has been used this way–was so deeply un-American.
The strength of the Tea Party is part of a broader phenomenon: the rise of small, intensely motivated groups that have been able to capture American politics. The causes are by now familiar. The redistricting of Congress creates safe seats, so the incentive is to pander to the extremes to fend off primary challenges, rather than to work toward the center. Narrowcast media amplify strong voices at the ends of the spectrum and make politicians pay a price for any deviation from dogma. A more open and transparent Congress has meant a Congress more easily pressured by small interest groups and lobbyists. Ironically, during this period, more and more Americans identify as independents. Registered independents are at an all-time high. But that doesn’t matter. The system in Congress reflects not rule by the majority but rule by the minority–fanatical, organized minorities.
These dysfunctions have reached crisis levels at the very time the U.S. faces intense pressures from an aging population, technological change and globalization. We need smart policies in every field. We need to pare spending in areas like health care and pensions but invest in others like research and development, infrastructure and education in order to grow. In an age of budgetary limits, money needs to be spent wisely and only on projects that are effective. But in area after area–energy, immigration, infrastructure–government policy is suboptimal, a sad mixture of political payoffs and ideological positioning. Countries from Canada to Australia to Singapore implement smart policies and copy best practices from around the world. We bicker and remain paralyzed.
Some of those best practices used to be American. The world once looked at America with awe as we built the interstate highway system, created the best public education in the world, put a man on the moon and invested in the frontiers of knowledge. That is not how the world sees America today. People watched what happened over the past month and could not comprehend it. We have taken something that the world never doubted–the credibility of the U.S.–and put it into question. From now on, every time the debt ceiling has to be debated, the world will wonder, Will America honor its commitments? Will it keep its word? Will the system break down? We have taken our most precious resource, the trust of the world, and gambled with it. If, as a result of these congressional antics, interest rates on America’s debt rise by 1% –in other words, if the world asks for just a little bit more interest to lend us money–the budget deficit will rise by $1.3 trillion over 10 years. That would more than wipe out the entire 10 years of cuts proposed in the debt deal. That’s the American system at work these days.
Maybe we can rethink what we are doing. American ingenuity both invented and grew out of the changing political world of the 18th Century. That same ingenuity if it is allowed to thrive rather than be throttled by ideologues can re-invent the government which helped make America great.
If it is the case that our political system is becoming polarized to the point of being paralyzed, a former congressman offered his opinion about how we got to this point.
Congressman Jim Cooper (D-TN) first elected to congress in 1982 made observations about a big change that occurred in congress that contributed to the polarization in congress and inability to work together. Cooper writing in BOSTON REVIEW (May-June 2011) as reported in the Summer 2011 WILSON QUARTERLY commented to the effect:
“Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) saw himself as leader of the entire House, not just the Democratic caucus. O’Neill’s was a House intent on making policy, not partisan mischief,’ Cooper recalls.”
There even was a time when “a group of elite staffers known as the Democratic Study Group provided authoritative memos before each important vote listing the pros and cons of the bill. The quality of these reports was so high that even some Republicanss subscribed.”
Cooper says the system changed a great deal “under the leadership of Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)”. “Gingrich centralized power in the office of the Speaker and politicized the position. Committee chairs, powerful under O’Neill, were ’emasculated, their authority redirected to the Speaker.” It was in this time the Democratic Study Group mentioned above ceased to exist.
It is possible that Gingrich made these changes to correct what were perceived as problems of congressional dysfunction in his day. Don’t know that story, but I’m just following Cooper’s line of thinking.
The changes that Cooper claims occurred are still in effect to this day, and it has not mattered whether Republicans or Democrats have been in power, they now follow the precedent set by Gingrich. Cooper notes, “The truth is that the [Gingrich] model works … if you are only interested in partisan control of Congress.”
This of course gets back to Fareed Zakariah’s point above that the U.S. political system is not a European parliamentary system. So those who are demanding that we return to the Constitution in determing how government is to operate, maybe we have to demand that we abandon the polarizing parliamentary European system and return to our democratic system where disagreeing politicians are forced to sit down together and work out a compromise that solves our problems.
Cooper’s “solution” is that our congressmen get “merit” pay based on their ability to co-operate to make the system work – including merit pay for those who eliminate obsolete laws and who work to cut spending. Not sure how that idea would work.
I want to also acknowledge that some think the rancorous process which we witnessed in dealing with the debt ceiling problem is nothing but democracy at work. Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post, 12 August 2011) thinks the system is working fine and we should quit complaining. He notes what is an obvious truth of American politics, voters do react against both ideas and politicians they don’t like. Thus we see swings in voters moving left and right whenever they think politicians have gone too far. He feels confident the system is doing what it is supposed to do and the results in the debt ceiling debate did what they could do. He wrote: “It was a triumph of democratic politics – a powerful shift in popular will finding concrete political expression.”
There is no doubt since the time of the election of 1800 in which Thomas Jefferson using dirty tricks defeated incumbent President John Adams. It was a rancorous campaign that caused Adams and Jefferson, two of the heroes of the revolution and founding fathers of our country, to have a complete falling out and become bitter political rivals. There have been major issues at stake that endangered the American political system soon after its birth. It exploded in the election of 1860 when Lincoln became President and American became a divided nation at war.
And though this is nothing new, I personally don’t find the process to be to my liking at all. But there is little doubt that the pitfalls of a bickering democracy are preferable to the dictatorship of a one party system. I silence the negative campaign cacophony by living TV and commercial radio free. I noticed that even a couple of my sons have basically quit watching TV and don’t have cable subscriptions. There is hope for America!
It seems to me that since both political parties seem to think they have to play to the extremes of their constituencies in a circus media driven political culture, most of what we receive from the partisan leadership is all heat and no light. Maybe that is the only way politicians can get anything done public accusations but behind the scenes some effort to reach a solution. But I know I would prefer hearing reasoned proposals rather than partisan rhetoric.
At one time some of the leaders of the two parties did agree that $4 Trillion in debt reduction was the goal. That was a huge step forward. But the resulting agreement was only about half that, which means we are going to have to listen to the rancor twice, and probably twice as much before they will come up with a package that will convince the world that the US is a safe place to invest your money because it is backed by the full faith and credit of the US government.