Thursday, June 16, 2011

Finding a way to govern again

I read a fascinating article in The Atlantic this week called "How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans."

It's written by Mickey Edwards a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma.

I think Edwards has articulated what many of us have come to suspect of the two parties, that they are more interested in vying with each other for political power than they are in actually doing what it takes to govern the county. A large part of what it takes is compromise. We don't see that out of members of Congress who are increasingly selected from one-party districts or by primary electorates who hold positions far to the left or right of the general public.

Edwards notes that when Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House she said her job was to elect more Democrats and that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the most important thing that Republicans could do with their increased numbers after 2010 was to insure the defeat of Barack Obama in 2012.

Really? The county is involved in three (and counting) wars, the unemployment rate is north of 9% and the most important thing the parties have to do is score political points off each other?

As Edwards notes, campaigning has become perpetual in Congress, at the expense of governing.

He worries that Congress has virtually ceased to function as an independent branch of government. The members of Congress in the party that holds the presidency have become almost an auxiliary part of the executive branch and the other party the reflexive opposition to the executive.

Which should concern everyone, liberal, conservative or moderate.

While both parties are fond at times of saying that this or that branch or department of government has overstepped "its Constitutional bounds," the parties themselves are well beyond their Constitutional roles.

Because the Constitution gives them no role.

The framers of the Constitution warned about the dangers of factions and parties, even as they were dividing into just such factions.

As Edwards points out the parties, in Constitutional terms, are nothing more than private social clubs. But they are private social clubs that have usurped the machinery of government to pursue their own agendas, which aren't always in the best interest of America.

They've done that despite the fact that "independent" is a more popular party designation than either "Democrat" or "Republican."

And they've found a way to make the rest of us pay for it.

Primary laws were adopted in many of the state in the early 20th century. The motive for their adoption was noble -- to decrease the influence of party "bosses" in picking nominees and open the process up to wider electorate.

But in the process, they shifted the burden of paying for the nominating processes of the Democratic and Republican parties -- and only the Democratic and Republican parties -- to taxpayers. So if you belong to the Libertarian Party or the Green Party or the Constitution Party or you consider yourself an independent with no party, you pay to help pick the Democratic and Republican candidates. If you're a Democrat, you helped pay to pick John McCain to run as the Republican candidate for president in 2008.  If you're a Republican you helped subsidize the process that chose Barack Obama.

The two parties, while they can't agree on much else, can agree to conspire to maintain their two-party monopoly. They've done this by passing onerous ballot access laws that make it difficult for independent or minor party candidates to get on the ballot. They've co-operated on a federal presidential debates commission that tries to make sure only the two major party candidates get the free publicity of televised presidential debates. State-level debates often follow similar rules.

It doesn't have to be this way. It wasn't all that long ago that it wasn't.

Although both were highly partisan, Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neil could set aside their political differences to work together to help save Social Security, a degree of co-operation we'd never see in today's hyperpartisan environment.

Edwards has six suggestions to help fix the problem:

  • break the power of partisans to keep candidates off the general election ballot. Open primaries are one way to do this.
  • turn over redistricting to independent, nonpartisan commissions.
  • reduce the power of the majority in the House to stop the minority from offering amendments to bills
  • create minority co-chairs for all committees, with the power to call a bill up for a vote and to call committee witnesses.
  • fill committee vacancies by lot. This would keep the parties from punishing their maverick members with poor committee assignments.
  • choose congressional committee staff solely on the basis of professional accomplishment, not partisan affiliation. While congressmen could pick their own aides as they wish, committee staff should be filled with experts on the subject area, not partisan attack dogs or yes men.

While I think all of Edward's suggestions have merit, I'm not as confident as he is that they'd fix the problem.

I think that will take a change of hearts, among both our political leaders and ourselves. We have to stop electing people who are merely tools of their party. And the folks we elect have to know we mean that. That doesn't mean that we'd pick everybody from the middle of the political spectrum. It means we'd pick people who have the integrity to stick with their own beliefs no matter what the party talking point of the day is.

That would mean that folks who are "deficit hawks" would be against high deficits no matter which party was in the White House. It would mean that politicians who thought the individual mandate for health care insurance was a good idea when a Republican proposed it would still think it's a good idea when proposed by a Democrat. And that a politician who opposed our penal colony at Guantanamo Bay, the Patriot Act and commitment of U.S. ground forces to the Middle East by a Republican president would still oppose those policies when carried on by a Democratic president.

And it would mean members of Congress would have to learn to care quite a bit less about their own power and quite a bit more about the well being of the citizens they were elected to represent.

Cross posted to All Politics Is Local
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