August 19, 2011
Blame It on the Founding Fathers.
What do you call a political system that not only can’t make big decisions, like whether government should do a lot or a little, but can’t even make routine decisions: how to count votes in union elections at the FAA, filling cabinet and sub-cabinet positions, confirming uncontroversial judicial nominations? What do you call a system whose viability depends on the willingness of elected representatives not just to compromise but to abandon their most deeply held beliefs, the beliefs that got them elected in the first place?
You call it the American political system, the one ordained 224 years ago by the founding fathers, the one made up of multi-branch, bicameral checks and balances.
The recent debt ceiling fiasco was triggered by the Republicans’ refusal to raise taxes, even to reduce the federal deficit, much less to succor the unfortunate. Democratic unwillingness to reduce Social Security played a role, too. And so did the voters’ decision, having elected an active-government president in 2008, to give control of the House of Representatives, and effective control of the Senate, to a party unalterably opposed to an active federal government in 2010.
But the real culprit is the Constitutional system itself, which makes outcomes like this almost inevitable. First, by establishing three elective institutions, the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, in the first place, all of whose agreement is required for laws to take effect. Then by staggering the election cycle for each of the three centers of power, so that each of them reflects the will of the public at different times. And finally by slicing and dicing the electorate differently for each body—electing the president nationally, the Senate statewide, and the House in districts small enough that there are 435 of them among the fifty states. We tend to think of unified government—control of the presidency, the Senate and the House in the hands of the same party, as the historical rule. But in the 33 elections since World War II, only thirteen times, and only six times in the last twenty elections, have the voters given control of the three elected branches—House, Senate and the presidency—to one party.
Often (seven of the thirteen elections and three of the six) unified-government elections have been associated with presidential first terms; voters often seem to give newly-elected presidents a unified Congress to carry out the promises that got them elected. (Interestingly, and perhaps revealingly, all six Democratic presidents elected to first terms in that time span got Democratic Congresses. But of five first-term Republican presidents, only one, Eisenhower, got a Republican Congress.) But in non-presidential-first-term election years, only five times in 22 elections have voters vested governing majorities in a single party.
So it’s the voters’ fault? Not really. Because it is in Congressional elections, 468 of them every two years, that Tip O’Neill’s maxim rings the truest: All politics is local. The vast majority of Congressional elections are referenda, not on the incumbent president’s performance or sharply focused national issues, but on local congresspersons’ record—and often not on their record on big national issues, but the issues that affect the district most directly and immediately.
That’s the system’s bad—a system designed for a smaller country, a country in which fewer could vote and those who could shared class interests across state and regional lines; and a country in which people were more concerned about government over-action, having only recently shed the colonial yoke, than government inaction and indecisiveness.
Interestingly, the political system we fought a revolution to shed, the British parliamentary system, is rarely troubled by divided government. In the 65 years since World War II, while America has endured forty years of divided government, Britain has had to resort to coalition government only once, last year. In Britain, the national government is managed by the leadership of the party that holds a majority in Parliament. Members of Parliament do not necessarily live in the district they represent, but are chosen for their reliability on their party’s national platforms. Once elected, they are expected, whether in the majority or minority, to vote with their party’s leadership. When the majority party cannot command a parliamentary majority for a key policy, they hold an election and bring in a government that can govern. Similarly, closer to home, Canada has had to resort to coalition government just twice in almost 150 years.
Imagine that: a government that has to act on critical issues or go back to the voters. It’s not for us, of course. Better to build government that depends on elected officials abandoning deeply-held beliefs and hopes of re-election. How’s that working for us?
Not even the kind of near-cataclysm we just confronted could induce us to switch to a form of government that could really work. But there was a debt-ceiling option that could have given us the next best thing: an election that focused on the big issues we face. And the architect of that option was the Senate’s Republican minority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
After a series of plans to clear the way for raising the debt limit by reducing the deficit fell victim to conservative intransigence, McConnell came up with a plan to raise the debt limit without solving the deficit reduction plan. To oversimplify, McConnell’s plan would let President Obama raise the debt ceiling on his own, in phases between through the election, and let him shoulder whatever blame came with it. In other words, to use the Washington catch-phrase for postponing solutions, to kick the can down the road.
This is one time, though, when it makes sense to kick the can down the road, especially if the road is the campaign trail and the kicking leads up to the 2012 election. McConnell put forth this solution because he thinks that raising the debt ceiling will play badly. After all, who likes putting the country further in debt? The McConnell plan played on the supposition that voters will punish whoever raises the debt limit. Why not, it suggested, let that be a Democratic president in the middle of a campaign that will revolve around the country’s parlous economic condition?
Well, why not? Why not let the election campaign be fought over the deficit, whether it’s better to reduce the deficit by cutting the Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits of elderly and low-income Americans—the average Social Security recipient, for example, gets about $14,000 a year—or to reduce the deficit by raising taxes? Or whether taxes are so poisonous to the economy that it would be better to default on the debt and risk the consequences than simply to pay for the services people want. What better issue could the election revolve around?
And what better time to hold such a referendum? The White House is on the ballot. The House and Senate are closely divided enough that a conservative or liberal wave could throw the government to one party or the other.
Alas, the McConnell proposal bloomed only briefly before being discarded in favor of a chimera that forced both sides to abandon core convictions.
My hope is that the debt-ceiling debate defined the parties so clearly that they will look past the deal they cut to first principles. And I hope that in a debate fought along those lines, faced with what seems to me to be a choice between sense and nonsense, the electorate will choose sense and give control to the Democrats. And if they don’t, the majority will at least have the government they want, and be forced to live with the consequences, rather than the dreary catatonia of permanent stalemate.
Just as though we had a parliamentary system.