Wednesday, October 9, 2013

From Good Government to Gridlock

Ezra Klein's column from Monday in the Washington Post examines how many of the most celebrated achievements in "good government" may be the cause of Washington, DC's gridlock, entitled "The 13 Reasons Washington is Failing".

That column could also have been described as "unintended consequences".  I presume if we were thinking about the long game, many of us would have realized that taking earmarks out of legislation would make certain bills harder to pass, but at the time getting rid of "pork" was an exciting new frontier.  No more bridges to nowhere!  But as Klein notes "It used to be that Boehner could ask a member to take a tough vote and, in return, help him or her get a bridge built back home. That bargaining chip is gone."

And transparency - that ideal that is often borne as a weapon by the minority against the majority interest (especially in local politics).  How could that be bad?  #StandWithRand #MakeDCListen #GreenEggsAndHam, the list goes on.

I recall trying to get CA to webcast Board Meetings.  Many of other Board members declined due to matters of vanity ("things get a little heated in here"), but one Board member suggested that it would encourage more grandstanding and playing for the audience.  Klein goes one step further, pointing out that the micro-coverage of legislation has made everything a horse race in which the special interests are the jockeys.

Campaign finance reform!  You can't say campaign finance reform has hurt us!  Vox populi!  Before I do, a quick story.  Two years ago, Congressman John Sarbanes spoke to a number of attorneys at my firm regarding his effort to simulate public financing.  He was brought to this effort after realizing that fundraising was destroying the social bonds of Congress.  John noted that times normally spent having lunch with members from across the aisle were now spent in a dark room, with other Democrats, making phone calls.

It seems that all present efforts at taking corporate money out of politics have been unsuccessful.  Even worse, with Citizens United on the books, we've empowered even more ideologically driven Super PACs to fill the void.  Do you think General Electric would ever allow a government shutdown?  Would investment banks tolerate playing chicken with the debt limit?  Please don't interpret this as a suggestion that we need to return to the warm embrace of our corporate overlords, but we should at least acknowledge how these efforts have brought us to this place.  The inmates are running the prison.

This discussion would not be complete without gerrymandering, which is also included in Klein's analysis, but not as prominently as you may think.  He suggests the jury is still out (a bit) on this being the cause of our current troubles and notes that the Senate (that place of Cruz's and McConnell's) is similarly polarized.  The Senate is also a weak comparison due to the additional opportunities for persuasion in smaller groups.  It is easier to win over 10 votes than it is 100.

While I recommend you read the whole piece, the last point I'll discuss here is Klein's suggestion that "Polarized media makes it easier for politicians and voters to fool themselves".  If you want to get depressed, consider the fact that even in the worst case scenario where the debt ceiling is not raised and the Country is driven to an unnecessary and preventable default on Treasury notes there will be no commonly accepted cause.  Democrats will blame Republicans for failing to pass a vote in the House.  Republicans will blame Democrats for "out of control spending" that finally caught up with us (with embarrassed moderates possibly still saying that Obama wouldn't compromise).  By almost every account (outside of the Tea Party), the Country would be crippled and we would not even be able to identify the problem that needs to be fixed.  That is what keeps me up at night.

The optimist in me says that all of this may be a turning point.  While I know some have been disgusted and turned off by the entire mess, I truly believe there will be a generation of elected officials who identify 2013 as the year they decided they wanted to get involved.  They will reject extremist ideology in all its forms and look back to practical governing as the new norm.  I just worry that some identifiable scar will be necessary before that effort comes on.

That's all for today.  Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!