In a democracy, fear is supposed to be a powerful motivator for policymakers. There’s a constant realization that there’s always another election coming, and those who want to keep their jobs – and avoid voters’ wrath – will have to be responsible stewards of the public trust.
But what if these norms start to break down? What if the incentives baked into the cake prove to be faulty?
Kevin Drum made a comment last week that struck a chord, noting that Americans seemed inclined to blame Democrats, not Republicans, “for the rising dysfunction of the federal government.”
[This] is especially galling for Democrats, but it’s a win for Republicans and yet another sign of change in the way Washington is likely to work in the future. Republicans have discovered that a sufficiently united party can obstruct everything and anything but largely escape blame for the resulting gridlock.
This lesson has not been lost on Democrats, and it bodes ill for the future regardless of who wins our next few elections.
I think that’s correct and it’s a point that’s not repeated nearly enough.
In a democratic model, the last couple of years have been a mess of historic proportions. Republicans, consciously or not, decided to roll the dice – they would ignore the 2012 election results, refuse to govern, and kill measures regardless of their merit, popular support, or bipartisan appeal. They would shut down the government. They would eschew compromise. They would ignore calls to present policy solutions of their own. They would create the least productive Congress in modern American history.
And then they would wait for the American people to give them a reward.
Which voters delivered yesterday with a lovely bow on top.
When there is no accountability in a political system, there is no incentive for even well-intentioned policymakers to behave responsibly. It seems quite twisted: an unpopular party with unpopular ideas failed miserably at basic governance, and was rewarded handsomely for its efforts. The process isn’t supposed to work this way, and yet we now know it works exactly this way.
The resulting precedent is more than a little discouraging. When failure is rewarded, it encourages more failure. When obstruction is rewarded, it encourages more obstruction. When radicalism is rewarded, it encourages more radicalism. When a refusal to compromise is rewarded, it means politicians will be led to believe they, too, should refuse to work on bipartisan solutions.
It’s not a recipe for sound governance.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, November 7, 2014
“Drop These Silly Notions Of False Equivalence”: The Democratic Party Is The Only Home For Centrists
This is a letter to political centrists.
For those of you alarmed that Rep. Eric Cantor was not conservative enough for Republicans in Virginia’s 7th congressional district, I encourage you to read Charles Wheelan’s The Centrist Manifesto. Wheelan, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College, puts to words what we can all sense: Partisan gridlock is becoming more than a nuisance in our lives. It is threatening our economy, our children’s educations, the welfare of the planet, and every other national priority.
Take a read through Wheelan’s “Manifesto.” It’s a short read, published last year after it became clear that President Obama’s re-election would not bring a new age of bipartisanship to Washington. Wheelan calls for the center to step outside of the two major parties and stand up for itself. In noting that the fastest growing bloc of voters is Independents, Wheelan argues that both the Democratic and Republican parties have driven out moderates by standing only for their political bases — and that the only resolution to this is an organized movement of Independents.
Take a read, because Wheelan is wrong.
Wheelan’s vision may have made sense in 2013, but much has changed in the past year. We are now well past the time for quixotic visions of bipartisanship driven by centrists on both sides of the divide. To read “Manifesto” is to recall a time when Americans could reasonably believe that in spite of bitter partisanship in Washington, Congress could transcend the ideological gap to act on immigration reform, universal background checks, and tax reform. To behave, in short, like statesmen.
If we have learned anything from Eric Cantor’s demise, it’s that the Republican Party is no place for pragmatic centrists. It’s not even a place for relentless partisans who may stray from Republican orthodoxy on an issue or two.
So it’s time to just say it out in the open: The resolution to Washington’s dysfunction is a migration of Independents into the Democratic Party, because there is only one side that seems at all interested in welcoming centrists.
We should first note one of the most fundamental rules of political science: Duverger’s Law. This is the observation, made famous by French sociologist Maurice Duverger, that in winner-take-all two-party systems, voters inevitably gravitate toward one of two major parties. This is because voters do not want to waste their vote on a candidate who will not win. Recall how quickly liberal voters snapped back into the Democratic fold after wasting votes on Ralph Nader in 2000; they know Duverger’s Law well.
Given Duverger’s Law, it would follow that any potential “Centrist Party” would run into institutional obstacles not easily surmounted by even the most popular movement. And even those preaching the gospel of bipartisanship, nonpartisanship, and centrism must accept the reality that the current Republican Party is plainly interested in none of that.
This goes for the 501(c)(4) groups like Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us. If you want Congress to move “FWD” on immigration reform, under what circumstance could you expect a GOP-led House to buck the Tea Party and pass a bill that commands broad bipartisan support?
This also goes for moderate voters, whom Wheelan notes comprised 41 percent of the electorate in 2012.
Wheelan correctly observes that any centrist party should not simply meet both sides halfway on each issue, but rather take the best ideas from both sides. A rational observer, for example, would not conclude that climate change is “probably” happening because Democrats are sure it is, and Republicans are sure it’s not.
He also correctly notes that many Democrats have strayed from sensible policies in favor of myopic political interests. But it simply cannot be said that there is no home for centrists in the Democratic Party.
In fact, several prominent Democrats — including Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) — are on record as supporting school choice. Congress passed free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama in 2011 with large numbers of Democratic votes, and President Obama signed them into law. The Obama administration and many of its congressional allies have supported lowering the corporate income tax from 35 percent to 28 percent.
In other words, Democrats often support centrist policies without reprisal. Such apostasy would never be tolerated in the GOP.
Wheelan examines the U.S. Senate in “Manifesto,” and proposes that if moderate members began asserting themselves as independent from their parties, the cogs of Washington may begin to turn again.
“With a mere four or five U.S. Senate seats, the Centrists can deny either traditional party a majority. At that point, the Centrists would be America’s power brokers…good things can start happening again,” Wheelan writes.
He’s right, but who might these four to five senators be? At the moment, they would almost assuredly be Democrats.
Take a look at the vote scoring of the 112th Senate (which ended after the 2012 election,) done by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal. The NOMINATE scale, an abbreviation for Nominal Three-Step Estimation, is immensely complex, and explaining it is well beyond the scope of this piece. Please accept for a moment that -1 on the scale is the score of the most liberal senator imaginable, and 1 is the most conservative. Zero is the perfect middle.
You may note the slight asymmetry of the distribution. I would mark the area between -0.25 and 0.25 as centrist territory. Thirteen of these centrists were Democrats, and only five were Republicans. Of these five, only Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Susan Collins (R-ME) remain in the 113th Senate. Murkowski, it should be noted, held on to her seat in 2010 only after a miraculous write-in campaign overruled GOP primary voters, who nominated fringe Tea Party candidate Joe Miller.
You might also note that NOMINATE scores President Obama as being as liberal as Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN) was conservative. Obama commands the approval of nearly 80 percent of Democrats, while Lugar was dismissed by GOP voters in favor of a man who believed that “God’s intent” was for women to bear the children of their rapists.
A Pew Research Center poll released this week found that 82 percent of “consistently liberal” respondents said they would like elected officials to make compromises; only 14 percent said they would prefer that elected officials stick to their positions. When offered the same dichotomy, “consistently conservative” respondents said they would prefer elected officials hold fast to their views by a 63 to 32 percent margin.
This Republican intransigence left Thomas E. Mann and Norman Ornstein, two of the most prominent scholars of the Senate, to place the blame for Washington’s dysfunction squarely on the GOP in their 2012 book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.
“When one party moves this far from the center of American politics, it is extremely difficult to enact policies responsive to the country’s most pressing challenges,” Mann and Ornstein write.
Of course, we recently had two years of almost unfettered Democratic control in Washington. Was the record of the 111th Congress, which reigned in 2009 and 2010, perfect? Of course not. But it got things done, including passing a markedly centrist health care bill that has expanded coverage to more than 10 million people to date.
It got done because those four or five senators Wheelan speaks of cooperated. Those senators were all Democrats.
On the issues, I have no apparent disagreements with Wheelan. He’s a brilliant author and public policy expert.
But he, and others, has to drop these silly notions of false equivalence. I too hope for a day when Republicans in Washington are ready to rejoin mainstream political thought. But it does no good to pretend that they exist in that space now. And given the message that GOP voters just sent us from Virginia’s 7th congressional district, they aren’t coming back anytime soon.
Until the GOP is ready to return to rationality, centrists are left with no choice but to organize and vote for Democrats, and work within the Democratic Party to advance centrist goals.
By: Thomas L. Day, an Iraq War veteran and a Defense Council member of the Truman National Security Project; The National Memo, June 17, 2014
“The Presidency Comes With Executive Power, Deal With It”: Obama’s Just Doing What He’s Empowered To Do
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama vowed to act on his own if Congress did not do its part. Republicans duly took the bait. “We don’t have a monarchy in this country,” said Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana. “The abuse of power by the administration has only become more brazen,” said Senator Ted Cruz.
Obama has unsheathed the sword of executive power, and yet rather than use it to smite his foes, he seems intent on clipping hedges. He says he will raise the minimum wage for a few thousand employees of federal contractors, tinker with the pension system, trim red tape, cajole business leaders to fund pre-kindergarten education, and do something unspecified to help stop gun violence.
Obama begged Congress for help far more often than he vowed to go it alone. Obama’s significant acts of executive power—the Libya intervention, the refusal to defend DOMA before the Supreme Court, non-enforcement of the immigration law against certain groups, climate regulation, NSA surveillance, recess appointments, executive privilege, and so on—lie in the past.
So we have a paradox. In his first term, Obama humbly beseeched Congress for help and sang the virtues of bipartisanship while resorting to unilateral action whenever he needed to. Today, he announces his defiance of Congress yet seems uninterested in using his newly acknowledged executive powers to, for example, shut Guantanamo Bay or raise the debt ceiling on his own.
Be that as it may, it is worth understanding what is at stake in these debates. We all learned in school that the founders feared executive power and so gave policy-making authority to Congress. In fact, the founders feared a too-powerful Congress as well, and they sought to create a strong executive. But the idea that Congress makes law and the president executes it—and any deviation from this pattern is tyranny—is burned into our political culture.
This system of separation of powers was cumbersome from the start. The country did well in its first few decades probably because state governments led the way, and state government structure was far less rigid than federal structure, which finally collapsed with the Civil War. When the communications and transportation revolutions created national markets and new opportunities and threats in foreign relations, it was finally clear that the federal separation-of-powers system could not manage policy at a national level.
The problem was that Congress was an enormously clumsy institution. Its numerous members fiercely advanced their deeply parochial interests. Policies of great importance for one section of the country, or one group of people, could not be embodied in legislation unless logrolling could be arranged, which was slow, difficult, and vulnerable to corruption. As a public, deliberative body, Congress could not react swiftly to changing events, nor act secretly when secrecy was called for.
No one held a constitutional convention to replace the eighteenth-century constitution with a twentieth-century one. Instead, political elites acting through the party system adjusted the government structure on their own. Congress created gigantic regulatory agencies and tasked the president to lead them. Congress also acquiesced as presidents asserted authority over foreign policy. The Supreme Court initially balked at the legislative delegations but eventually was bullied into submission; it hardly ever objected to the president’s dominance over foreign affairs.
This was not a smooth process. The rise of executive power sometimes hurt important interests and always rubbed against the republican sensibilities that Americans inherited from the founders. From time to time, Congress reaped political benefits from thwarting the president. But today Congress reacts rather than leads. It investigates allegations of corruption in the executive branch. It holds hearings to torment executive officials. It certainly doesn’t give the executive the budget he always wants, or pass every new law that he believes that he needs. But existing laws and customs almost always give the president the power he needs to govern. And when they don’t, Congress will sooner or later give him the power he wants. Witness the Dodd-Frank Act and the Affordable Care Act—two massive expansions of executive power.
In monarchies, the official position was that the king made policy but everyone understood that his ministers did. In our system, the official story is that Congress makes policy and the president implements it—such is the inertia of history. But the reality is that the president both makes policy and implements it, subject to vague parameters set down by Congress and to its carping from the sidelines. Presidents can defy the official story and assert the reality if they want. That is what the George W. Bush administration did, to its eventual sorrow. In hindsight, the broad assertions of executive power by Bush administration lawyers in signing statements, executive orders, and secret memos were naïve. They described, with only some exaggeration, the actual workings of the government, but their account conflicted with the official narrative and thus played into the hands of critics, who could invoke tyranny, dictatorship, and that old standby, the “imperial presidency.”
Democratic presidents have been shrewder. Bill Clinton and Obama have been just as muscular in their use of executive power as Ronald Reagan and Bush, but they resisted the temptation to brandish the orb and scepter. Whereas Republican presidents cite their constitutional powers as often as they can, Democratic presidents avoid doing so except as a last resort, preferring instead to rely on statutes, torturing them when necessary to extract the needed interpretation. Thus did Obama’s lawyers claim that the military intervention in Libya did not violate the War Powers Act because the U.S. bombing campaign did not amount to “hostilities” (the word in the statute). A more honest legal theory—one that does not require such a strained interpretation of a word—is that the War Powers Act infringes on the president’s military powers, but a theory like that would have provoked howls of protest.
In most cases, lawyers do not need to resort to such measures because Congress has already granted authority. The president’s power to raise the minimum wage comes from the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949, which, in typically broad language, permits the president to set contract terms with federal contractors so as to promote “efficiency.” Far from being a bold assertion of executive power, this is the type of humdrum presidential action that takes place every day.
Congress gave the president the power to determine contract terms because Congress did not want to—practically speaking could not—negotiate those terms itself every time the U.S. government entered a contract. This principle explains why Congress gives the executive branch enormous discretion to determine health, education, environmental, and financial policy. Congress directed the financial regulators to implement the Volcker Rule, but it would be entirely up to those regulators to make the rule meaningful or toothless. Nor can Congress block Obama’s decision to effectively implement the Dream Act—which was not passed by Congress—by not enforcing immigration laws against those who would have benefited from the act.
Meanwhile, the founders’ anxieties about executive tyranny have proven erroneous. The president is kept in check by elections, the party system, the press, popular opinion, courts, a political culture that is deeply suspicious of his motives, term limits, and the sheer vastness of the bureaucracy which he can only barely control. He does not always do the right thing, of course, but presidents generally govern from the middle of the political spectrum.
Obama’s assertion of unilateral executive authority is just routine stuff. He follows in the footsteps of his predecessors on a path set out by Congress. And well should he. If you want a functioning government—one that protects citizens from criminals, terrorists, the climatic effects of greenhouse gas emissions, poor health, financial manias, and the like—then you want a government led by the president.
By: Eric Posner, The New Republic, February 3, 2014
Though millions of Americans received Christmas gifts Wednesday, none got the one thing just about everybody wanted. No, not a new iPhone: A new Congress.
Two-thirds of Americans in a CNN poll released Thursday said the current Congress was the worst one in their lifetimes. And it wasn’t just one party or demographic who felt that way.
“That sentiment exists among all demographic and political subgroups. Men, women, rich, poor, young, old — all think this year’s Congress has been the worst they can remember,” CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said.
Three cheers for bipartisanship!
Meanwhile, three-fourths of respondents said lawmakers had “done nothing to address the country’s problems” through the first year of the 113th Congress. That gets at what’s primarily to blame for Congress’ horrible image: Lawmakers didn’t do much of anything this year, and the few things they did do were spectacularly infuriating. Heck, one of Congress’ most notable actions was failing to pass a bill to fund the government and, as a result, shuttering Washington for two weeks.
It’s not just a skewed, subjective view of congressional inaction either. The 113th Congress is statistically on track to be one of the least productive in history.
The 113th Congress passed only 66 laws in its first year, according to GovTrack. That was the lowest tally in four decades, or as far back as GovTrack has reliable data. Worse, only 58 of those bills became law, and many of them did nothing more than name post offices.
Meanwhile, many enormously popular bills fizzled. Nine in ten Americans supported tougher background checks for gun purchases, though Congress spiked gun control legislation. Two-thirds of Americans supported the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill, but the House refused to take it up this year.
So yes, people aren’t too thrilled with how Congress has been functioning, a sentiment that’s been made clear throughout the year. Polls have found Congress less popular than dog turds and cockroaches, and in November, Congress’ approval rating fell to an all-time low of nine percent, according to Gallup.
Don’t count on that trend turning around any time soon either. Sure, Congress just passed a bipartisan budget agreement before fleeing Washington for the holidays, but that compromise was relatively tiny, and there are other major showdowns looming, including yet another one over the debt ceiling. Oh, and 2014 is a midterm election year, which should make lawmakers even more tepid toward major action.
In other words, the 113th Congress is already one of the most unpopular and least-productive in history, and it’s probably only going to get worse.
By: Jon Terbush, The Week, December 26, 2013