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Some of What I Found Worth Noting: June 15, 2012

Michael DeLong: Mann and Ornstein's "It's Even Worse than It Looks" Reviewed

Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein’s It's Even Worse Than It Looks convinced me that having a political system where corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money for or against politicians is a recipe for favoritism and corruption. We need to reduce the influence of money in politics.

But there's much more to the book than that. Here are some of my thoughts:

Both Mann and Orntein have written about Congress for many years. Both are well-respected centrist scholars. They know what they are talking about. And both Mann and Ornstein agree that politics today is far worse than usual: that our political process right now is unusually broken.

Theywrite that our current political process has two overreaching problems:

  1. The two political parties now behave like parliamentary parties, while the structure of our government--unlike the government of a parliamentary system--makes it very difficult for a bare single-party majority to pass legislation; and

  2. It is the Republican Party that has become more extreme and more determined to block anything that might help the Democrats--significantly more so.

The federal government has always had many blocking veto points that must be overcome in order to pass legislation. The House of Representatives must pass a bill. The Senate must also pass the bill. The President must sign the bill (except for the rare occasions where two-thirds of both houses vote to override the President’s veto). Lately yet another veto point has emerged: a 60 vote threshold in the Senate. Filibusters used to be very rare. Now they are routine. All these obstacles make it difficult for the government to act unless one party controls all three--and controls the Senate with 60 votes.

Democrats and Republicans used to be very heterogenous, with liberals and conservatives in both parties and only the loosest semblance of party discipline. Now practically all the Democrats are liberals or moderates and the Republicans are conservatives. Mann and Ornstein do an excellent job of explaining these changes. They criticize those who claim that both parties are equally at fault. Both Democrats and Republicans now view each other as adversaries, Republicans, however, are far more unified and obstructionist--and also have become more conservative in part because of primary challenges.

Obstruction has been taken to ridiculous levels, with Republicans now using holds and filibusters to block nominees and legislation. Obama nominated economist Peter Diamond to the Federal Reserve. Senator Richard Shelby placed a hold on his nomination, claiming he was too inexperienced for the job. While being delayed, Diamond was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. Shelby kept blocking his nomination. After a year of waiting, Diamond withdrew. Other nominees, such as Donald Berwick (to head the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services) and Richard Cordray (to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) were also blocked. Every one of Obama's bills has had to get 60 votes or more to pass, due to the threat of the filibuster.

Republican obstruction is not entirely new. In a 1993 memorandum, William Kristol urged Senator Bob Dole and other Republicans to oppose Bill Clinton's health care plan “sight unseen”, no matter what the substance of the policy he proposed. Passage of any health care reform at all, he argued, would harm the Republican Party.

It is good to see two respected centrist observers of Congress recognizing that Republican obstruction of Obama's proposals is largely driven by a desire to hurt him politically, no matter what its effect on the country.

So are there any solutions to our current state of affairs?

The authors reply “yes.” But their solutions are not the ones pundits and politicians usually advocate.

There is no silver bullet. Pundits love to call for a third “centrist” party. But90 percent of voters identify with either the Democratic or the Republican parties. Even if a candidate from a third party were elected President, he or she would still have to work with Congress. The United States's plurality voting system promotes a two-party system.

Pundits tout term limits as a way to fix American politics. Mann and Ornstein point out that term limits have had little effect on partisanship in the state legislatures that have adopted them. What they have done is to prevent legislators from acquiring experience and getting things done, and empowered lobbyists and sometimes staff.

Pundits also call for a balanced-budget amendment. Mann and Ornstein dismiss a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, since it would require massive spending cuts or huge tax increases and prevent the government from using fiscal policy to counter an economic downturn.

They do list a bunch of reforms that they believe will help things. Among them are:

  • making it easier for citizens to register and vote,
  • moving Election Day to the weekend to make it more convenient for voters
  • making attendance at the polls mandatory,
  • having independent commissions draw congressional districts, and
  • open primaries.

Mann an Ornstein also suggest that the United States experiment with different elctoral systems, such as ranking candidates in order of preference. They call for limiting filibusters. They say that the nomination process should be sped up. They say that the Senate should require forty-one votes to continue the debate instead of sixty votes to end it.

All of these ideas are excellent. They would greatly improve American politics. But the question is: will politicians push for them? And won't Republicans oppose all of these reforms, because they will result in political benefits for the Democratic Party? These are good questions that they do not answer.

I wish the two authors had come up with explanations on how to implement their proposed solutions—heaven knows, the United States could use them. But that wish is not a statement that the book is not good. This is an excellent little book that should be read by all people interested in what is really wrong with U.S. politics.

This book convinced me that in order for the American political system to work, we will need to make drastic changes--to make it more like a parliamentary system. Currently, it is far too easy for the minority party to obstruct the majority's agenda, producing gridlock, frustration, inefficiency, and political victory for the minority as the voters throw the ineffective bums out. But while our broken system harms everybody, it harms the Republicans least--inasmuch as they claim that government is useless and inherently wasteful, and should be dismantled and privatized, an ineffective government boosts their case.

Perhaps the biggest first step would be removal of the Senate filibuster. If we really want to make it easier for government to act and want a better country, we should work to get rid of the filibuster. Right now the Senate is a political graveyard where good bills go to die. Changing the Senate to operate on majority rule would be a step, and a step we should take now.