Friday, March 15, 2013

Parties and government dysfunction in the US

Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein attracted quite a bit of well-deserved attention last year for their book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism (2012).

It has been much discussed and reviewed. I saw the two of them do a presentation based on the book last year, of which they did quite a few in the process of promoting the book.

They discuss the current toxic partisan environment in the national government in the US. And they rightly identified the main culprit, not relying on the lazy psuedo-centrist both-sides-are-to-blame truism of which the Beltway Village press are so fond:

Today's Republican Party ... is an insurgent outlier. It has become ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition, all but declaring war on the government. The Democratic Party, while no paragon of civic virtue, is more ideologically centered and diverse, protective of the government's role as it developed over the course of the last century, open to incremental changes in policy fashioned through bargaining with the Republicans, and less disposed to or adept at take-no-prisoners conflict between the parties. This asymmetry between the parties, which journalists and scholars often brush aside or whitewash in a quest for "balance," constitutes a huge obstacle to effective governance.
Their book offers a number of ideas of reforms that might be sensible and improve the general functioning of the federal government. And they make critical examinations of a number of popular explanations of the current widely-recognized problems. They argue, for instance, that the assumption that gerrymandering is responsible for party polarization as such doesn't hold up well to scrutiny. They argue that its "impact is relatively minor and marginal" on party polarization.

They also use a phrase "the new nullification" that may prove to be a useful term, though I'm still digesting it myself:

Republicans' efforts in the tacit cause of partisan rivalry to block the confirmation of nominees - to embarrass the president and hobble his ability to run the executive branch-are troubling enough. But the new strategy has an additional, even more disturbing element: blocking nominations, even while acknowledging the competence and integrity of the nominees, to prevent the legitimate implementation of laws on the books. In many cases, if no person is running an agency charged with enforcing a law, the agency can't easily implement or enforce the law; career bureaucrats are reluctant to make critical decisions without the imprimatur of the presidential appointee who should be running the agency. We call this - together with other tactics, including repeal of just-enacted statutes, coordinated challenges to their constitutionality, and denial of funds for implementation - the new nullification, in reference to the pre-Civil War theory in Southern states that a state could ignore or nullify a federal law it unilaterally viewed as unconstitutional. [emphasis in original]
They also mention a salient fact that is typically ignored entirely when Village pundits wring their hands at the incivility of all this partisanship: "for most of the past century, the parties were less internally unified and ideologically distinctive, and more coalitions in Congress cut across parties than is the case today." So, of course in that situation, ideologically divisive issues were often settled on a "bipartisan" basis. But that's something very different than the Village's fetish for bipartisanship as a goal in itself.

Still, Mann and Ornstein don't entirely avoid the peril inherent in focusing on process and institutional issues, which is failing to give full significance to the reality that content matters.

Bipartisanship or consensus isn't a good thing in itself. Ever. It may feel good, but it's never a good thing in itself in isolation from what action or lack thereof is being decided. Some of the worst decisions the American government has ever made were done so on a broadly bipartisan basis. The ending of Reconstruction in the South in the 1870s, for instance, in which Democrats and Republicans agreed to withdraw federal forces and leave the laws unenforced, while white Democrats overthrew the democratic governments there by force and violence, and many states sustained segregation and un-Constitutional voter suppression laws against black citizens (which also affected poor whites) well into the 1960s.

The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed in 1964 on a broad bipartisan basis, becoming the legal and political figleaf on which the Johnson Administration justified the full-blown escalation of the Vietnam War - an escalation he was elected in 1964 opposing.

The list could go on: the open-ended Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF)after the September 11 attacks in 2001, the rush bipartisan approval of the PATRIOT Act that same year. The debate in Congress over Old Man Bush's Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 may have been more nominally civil. But it resulted in a decision to authorize military intervention, a decision I supported at the time but in light of subsequent events and revelations about how the Bush I Administration made its case for war, I regard now as very much a bad one.

The debate over the Iraq War and the authorizing resolution in 2002 also passed on a bipartisan basis, though Democrats like Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd opposed it intensely. The fact that it was bipartisan didn't make the decision any less destructive, irresponsible and reprehensible.

Mann and Ornstein devote their first chapter, "The New Politics of Hostage Taking," to the debt-ceiling fight in 2011, using it as example of how asymmetrical political polarization torpedoed a Grand Bargain, which they characterize this way: "What that produced was a year of hostage taking and wrangling in Congress, misdirected steps to deal with the deficit, and nothing whatsoever to remedy the public's greatest concern - chronic unemployment."

But what was the content of that Grand Bargain likely to have been? "Grand Bargain" basically means cutting benefits on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Very bad policy, a very bad idea. (See Bob Kuttner, The Grand Bargain We Don't Need Huffington Post 3/10/2013) And we know that the Democratic President was in full Heinrich Brüning mode, as he is again at this present writing. We know he offered up a large and very damaging increase of the Medicare eligibility age by two years. He was also pushing for using the "chained CPI" scam to cut benefits on current and future Social Security recipients.

And the whole debt-ceiling debate was about how much austerity to impose on the US economy that was then and still is now in a weak recovery, employment levels still a long way from the 2007 level and well-paying jobs even scarcer. All this while Britain, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain were demonstrating dramatically and in real time how damaging austerity policies in the middle of a depression are.

So, while the debt-ceiling fiasco did illustrate the partisan and institutional dysfunctions that Mann and Ornstein describe, in that context a more successful partisan and institutional process would have produced a really bad set of policy decisions. We can distinguish between process and result. But they can't be treated in isolation from one another. And that's not only true for that particular incident.

But the thrust of the book is to point out real problems that block the functioning of healthy democratic processes in a major way. And they do point out the massively corrupting role of big money, which is intimately connected with policy outcomes. If wealthy donors dominate the political process, outcomes will be skewed in a way that favors the narrow interest of that class.

Mann and Ornstein are also not promoting some pseudo-centrist "postpartisan" or end-of-ideology perspective here. For instance, they write:

... beware of nonprofit political groups bearing independent presidential candidates and balanced, centrist tickets. Americans hate political parties in general but the parties are essential vehicles to represent their values and views and to give direction and purpose to government. A democracy cannot float above politics; politics - and parties - are critical components of our democratic DNA. Political groups promoting the siren song of transcending politics instead of working to change the dysfunctional behavior of those in politics and government suffer from their own democratic deficit and are more likely to play spoiler or produce an ungovernable administration than to remedy dysfunctional politics. [my emphasis]
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