Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Broken Government

by Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue

Now that this summer's debt ceiling debate has mercifully come to an end, everything is fine, right? In a word: No. As that slow-moving train wreck should have made clear, our government is worse than dysfunctional. It is now broken beyond repair.

Before the summer of 2011, the U.S. Congress had managed to raise the debt ceiling without the threat of default more than 100 times in both Republican and Democratic administrations. But a minority of Republicans in the House, elected by an even smaller minority of the electorate, held the credit worthiness of the U.S. as a hostage: As Diane Rehm of NPR pointed out, only "16% of the US population voted in 2010" to elect the 87 freshmen Tea Party representatives.

But the real problem isn't the Tea Party, as moronic as they are. It's our electoral system itself that makes these kinds of swings from one political party to another likely. Midterms always have substantially fewer voters than presidential elections. For example, in 2008 about 63% of eligible voters turned out. Contrast that with 2010, when only about 41% showed up at the polls.

Because there are fewer voters, a movement with deep pockets can win if they can get their disgruntled voters to the voting booths, and if their representatives are unrepresentative of the population as a whole and go against the majority's will, so be it. There is nothing in the American electoral system to stop that from happening and everything to encourage it.

Many argue that the problem with Congress now stems from most representatives coming from safe districts, so there is no incentive to moderate one's views. Republicans and Democrats have to appeal to their respective bases so are more ideological, less amenable to compromise or so the argument goes.

There is some truth to this, but it could easily be solved by either having representatives elected through proportional representation or by taking politics out of redrawing congressional districts by having a non-partisan committee reconfigure districts so both political parties are competitive. But the fact is, the majority of states will never try either of these remedies. And don't waste your time expecting Congress to reform itself. Congress is broken; it won't fix itself.

The 112th Congress may well be, in the words of Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, "the worst Congress ever," but the dysfunction that plagues the American system is nothing new.

The problem with our government is not a temporary one caused by a bunch of Tea Party radicals funded by the super-rich. As writer Daniel Lazare pointed out 15-years ago in The Frozen Republic: the history of our system is one where "failure is the norm, success the exception, and bursts of activity are followed by long periods of crippling gridlock."

Take the past 35 years, most of my adult life. The examples of our government's dysfunction are legion. By my count, U.S. troops were sent to fight in at least 7 major conflicts, none of them declared wars by Congress and all together costing the US taxpayer trillions of dollars, not to mention that 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union we have hundreds of bases all over the world, protecting some countries from threats that no longer even exist. Also during that time, we've had to endure long-periods of legislative paralysis; two Presidents who were impeached or almost impeached (Nixon and Clinton); one government shutdown; and an election that was in doubt for 36 days until the Supreme Court (s)elected the man who came in second place in the voting.

The whole 2000 fiasco should have been a huge warning sign to all of us as to how broken our system is. No other modern democracy has elections that remain in doubt for weeks, using ballots that are difficult to read, while at the same time allowing some votes to count more than others because of an arcane method of tabulating votes adopted because of a political compromise (the Connecticut Compromise) more than 200 years ago. In modern democracies, the first-place vote-getter wins, Period. It is straightforward, transparent and clear, as every good government is and ours, unfortunately, is not.

But what is most striking about this continued misgovernance is not only its political consequences, but its real and direct impact on each of us. Since 1980 our economy has doubled, yet the average person's wages have remained largely stagnant. Also, in almost any measure our country lags behind other western democracies. We have comparatively astronomical rates of crime, infant mortality, and percentage of the population incarcerated, while having a rate of voter participation and a gap between the rich and poor that rival most third world countries.

The CIA's World Fact Book ranks the U.S. as the 42nd most unequal country in the world. And get this: we have now a greater gap between rich and poor than such bastions of democracy as Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. And as the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance has pointed out, we have a lower voter turnout than almost any other western democracy. How can we say that our government has the consent of the governed when most people don't even bother to vote?

What is most galling is that none of our problems are unsolvable. Yet having observed our government for some time, I know that year after year very little of any real substance gets done to resolve the serious issues we face.

For instance, there is any number of possible solutions for low-voter turnout. We could increase participation easily by automatically registering citizens to vote as is done in other countries or ticketing non-voters as is done in Australia or by going to proportional representation in the House. None of these reforms would require any change to our constitution, but the likelihood of any such reforms ever passing is almost nil, regardless as to which party is in power.

The fact is that now we are going in the opposite direction. Many states with the help of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have passed ID laws that will drive voter participation even lower.

As a citizen and as an observer of American politics for the past 4 decades, I have never been less hopeful about my country's future than I am now. We have a myriad of incredible challenges facing us. Take just three: education, infrastructure, and health care. As a long-time high school teacher, it pains me to say that according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development international education rankings "the United States has fallen to "average." Also, the American Society of Civil Engineers has given the US the grade of a D on their Report Card on Infrastructure. In healthcare, as Robert Reich, former secretary of labor, has written: " Americans spend more on health care per person than any other advanced nation and get less for our money."

So does any one out there honestly believe that our political system in its present state is up for fixing any of these problems? The simple answer is a resounding: NO! Public figures from CNN's Fareed Zakaria to Canada's top diplomat in the U.S. Ambassador Frank McKenna have publicly stated that our government is dysfunctional. And most Americans agree. A recent Gallup poll says that only 42% of the American public believes our form of government works. In this the majority is right.

But why is our government so dysfunctional? One reason may be that every year billions of dollars are spent by thousands of corporate lobbyists. Not to mention, the legalized bribery of campaign contributions. As Aaron Scherb of Public Campaign wrote, "Recent estimates reveal that many members spend anywhere from 25 percent up to 50 percent (and sometimes more) of their time fundraising, especially as an election approaches." AsThomas Ferguson, Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, has written, " In dividing so sharply and refusing compromises, Congress is listening primarily to those who contribute political money, not the public." Little wonder than that, as Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has pointed out, we are now a government "of the [richest] 1%, by the [richest] 1%, and for the [richest] 1%."

So things look pretty gloomy, but can't we some how hope for public financing of campaigns to end this scourge of corporate governance? We can also hope for Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, more hair, and a twenty-pound weight loss.

After the right-wing activist Roberts’ court Citizens United ruling, we can forget about any legislative body trying to even the playing field for the vast majority of us. It will not happen. If you cannot get big money out of the electoral system, the average person has no real power. As Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs has pointed out, "In America today, only the rich have political power."

For proof, look no further than at what went on in Washington this past summer. Most Americans understand that our greatest problem is unemployment. A June CBS poll had 53% saying jobs was the most important issue facing the country, while only 7% picked the budget deficit, not surprising considering that effectively we now have double-digit unemployment in this country.

And the obvious solution to that problem is for the government to prime the pump, to spend money to increase employment, yet you wouldn't know it by our government's actions of late. They had conniption fits about -- not unemployment, but the debt. So the government will cut spending, which will only mean less employment. Duh! There is now an almost total disconnect from what most people want and what our government does.

But can't we still hope for some Superman or Superwoman to come and save us? In 2012 another presidential election is coming up, and the chattering class will urge us with all their wiles to catch that quadrennial fever that is so contagious within the Beltway. To fall for some new face, who, despite being well-connected to the halls of power, invariably will pose as an "outsider" running against the mess in Washington. And we will be sold a bill of goods that this man or woman will somehow cut through this Gordian knot of a government.

But as a recovering political junkie, who has been multiple times through this waiting for Superman bit, let me tell you that you are living in a fantasy if you believe one man or woman, can fix this system. Just ask Barack Obama or his supporters and ex-supporters.

In fact, I can predict with 100% accuracy that there will be no Supermen (or Superwomen) in our future. And yes, I know, a third party is such a seductive and beguiling mirage, but, in the end, it is a rabbit hole. Our winner-take-all system effectively keeps third party aspirants permanently on the fringe.

So is there any hope? Well, I suppose, the eternally optimistic among us can hope for constitutional changes that will reinvigorate our democracy, but the very Constitution that governs us makes any change more than difficult.

The mere attempt to amend our 18th century Constitution is a challenge so daunting as to make it nearly impossible. The two-thirds rule means the opposition of one-third plus one of either chamber or one-third plus one state legislature can doom any amendment that the vast majority would like to pass. And this one-third plus one in the state legislatures or Congress might only represent a miniscule percentage of the electorate. As Yale professor emeritus Robert A. Dahl has pointed out in his How Democratic Is the American Constitution?, changes "that would be desirable from a democratic point of view . . . have very little chance of coming about in the indefinite future."

One question we should ask but won't is why do we continue to allow ourselves to be governed by an 18th century relic? No one still wears white wigs and satin breeches, at least not in public. Our culture, literature, modes of transportation, social mores, and even the total area of our nation have changed drastically. Yet collectively we have bought into the myth that Jay, Madison, and Hamilton are some sort of holy trinity that delivered the Constitution to us after a weekend mountain retreat with God: Ignoring the simple fact that the Constitution was debated by real live 18th century human beings with all kinds of failings and prejudices in a very muggy Philadelphia 224 years ago.

The Constitution of 1787 is first and foremost a political document written by and for a certain time. Many of the issues it addressed, slavery and the amount of power Virginia had compared to other states, are no longer on the front burner because that time has passed. And the time has long passed when we should write fawning, obsequious lines treating this 18th century relic as if it were a sacred text.

One simple way of demythologizing the Constitution is to ask, "What kind of government do we want?" While we might differ on particulars, at a bare minimum, most people would want a government that is representative, is responsive to the public's needs, and can be held accountable come Election Day. Everything our present government is not. It is unrepresentative, unresponsive to the general public, and because of divided government cannot be held accountable.

Our government's balance of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches was imposed so that, as Madison explained in Federalist No. 10, the majority could not rule. It was Madison's belief that "an interested and overbearing majority" should be checked. Or as Governor Edmund Randolph of Virginia stated baldly at the Constitutional Convention, "Our chief danger arises from the democratic parts of our constitutions." In short, the balance of powers scheme was designed to provide a "check against . . . democracy."

Yet the balance of powers idea not only curbs democracy, in the end it is responsible for our irresponsible government. As Glenn Beck's improbable bĂȘte noire, Woodrow Wilson wrote inCongressional Government before he was President, "Power and strict accountability for its use are the essential constituents of good government . . . It is, therefore, manifestly a radical defect in our federal system that it parcels out power and confuses responsibility as it does." Or, a bit snappier in the same tome, "[T]he more power is divided, the more irresponsible it becomes."

A relevant example occurred during Ronald Reagan's tenure when deficits exploded. Reagan supporters to this day defend their man by pointing out that it is Congress, not the President, that produces the budget, and they have a point, even if you acknowledge the fact that Reagan never submitted a balanced budget.

So who was to blame for those Reagan-era deficits? Because of divided government, both Congress and the President were to blame. But since both were responsible and controlled by different parties, neither could be held accountable.

If our legislative and executive branches were combined as they are in most Western democracies, then responsibility would be easy to figure out. The party in power is responsible; therefore, the voters would hold them accountable at the polls. In short, our Constitution bequeaths us a government that by design is unaccountable, but that's not all.

Our much-vaunted Constitution is just plain undemocratic. Consider the U.S. Senate, the least representative governing body in the Western world. Having two senators per state is an outrage. In the Senate, a bit more than half a million Wyomingites have the same amount of representation as 37 million Californians. As Alexander Hamilton put it in 1787, "the practice of parsing out two senators per state shocks too much the ideas of justice and every human feeling." And he said that when the ratio between the most populous state and the least was near 10-to-1, not the obscene 66-to-1 that it is now.

Little wonder that the Senate, with its overuse of the threat of filibuster that allows 41 Senators from sparsely populated states that represent a small fraction of the electorate, has become the tar pits of the Congress, the place where bills go to die. But year after year we put up with the patented absurdities of an unrepresentative Senate and an equally unrepresentative Electoral College.

All because they were put in the "sacred" Constitution by the framers who in 1787 undoubtedly knew, because they were so foresighted, that we would some day end up with an African-American President, who in their day would have been counted as three-fifths of a human being, and, also, I'm sure they knew that the Packers would beat the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. It's just too bad they didn't have on-line betting in the 18th century, or the framers could've made a fortune.

What we need to understand in this country is that a constitution is only a plan of government. There is nothing sacred about it. "The legitimacy of the constitution," Dahl pointed out, "ought to derive solely from its utility as an instrument of democratic government -- nothing more, nothing less."

But our country is truly cursed by a constitutional idolatry. In most modern democracies, if the governing institutions don't work, they're fixed. But here in a land of so much change and innovation, God forbid we should make our government better. What would the long-dead framers think? So we are stuck in a pre-modern constitutional fundamentalism.

We cannot amend our Constitution and make it more democratic. And we cannot get corporate money out of our elections because we have an activist Supreme Court that believes it can channel the thoughts of the framers -- as if the framers even had opinions about the "personhood" of transnational corporations. And if we can do neither of those, then the odds of any real change happening are not worth betting on.

I'm afraid our government is like Elmer Fudd; it has done to itself the old gag from vintage cartoons. It's painted itself into a corner, and I have no idea how, or even, if our government will ever get out of this corner. We have serious problems that need to be resolved and can be resolved, but the very nature of our system prevents workable solutions from even being tried. In short, because our system is so totally broken, we cannot fix it.

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