Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Getting real about gridlock

Two recent opinion pieces about how to overcome partisan gridlock, one by a respected ex-senator and one by a young blogger, are a clear illustration of the two modes of thinking on the issue. Unfortunately, only the assinine one is currently reflected in our political campaigns (especially a certain candidate of "hope" and "change"), while the intelligent and realistic one doesn't have anybody on board.

Sen. Bob Graham (whom, I should note, I like a lot for being wise enough to vote against the Iraq War resolution on the grounds that it would distract us from fighting Al Qaeda) is the author of the assinine piece in the Washington Post.

Here are his "steps" to fixing partisan gridlock, followed by a dose of reality:

-"Each presidential nominee should commit to appointing a truly bipartisan Cabinet that would include the most qualified people available, regardless of their party affiliation."

Unlike say, running FEMA, many cabinet positions aren't just about technical competence. A president should reasonably expect his or her cabinet will be made up of people who agree with his values and policy prescriptions. Should Hillary Clinton appoint an HHS secretary who doesn't believe in national healthcare? Should John McCain name a defense secretary who's against the Iraq War? The best they could do is moderates from the other party for some posts, and that won't make the hard core partisans feel better. I recall that Bill Clinton appointed a moderate Republican as his defense secretary and that didn't exactly make the late '90s a bipartisan panacea.

-"we would also press both major-party nominees to lay out specific strategies for reducing polarization and reaching bipartisan consensus on our agenda of national challenges."

Reduce partisanship by forcing candidates to describe how they would reduce partisanship. Brilliant!

-"Congress must restore and modernize the campaign finance reforms enacted after Watergate."

A fine idea, though how does this reduce partisanship? Doesn't that have to do with reducing favors owed to special interests?

-"The media must insist that future presidential debates each focus on a single issue."

Also a fine idea. And also nothing to do with reducing partisanship.

-Political parties must fundamentally reform the dysfunctional presidential primary system.

An excellent idea. But, ummmm, see my response to the last two. Are Iowa and New Hampshire voters more partisan than other states?

-"Our citizens must be educated to use their powers for effective participation in the political process."

You probably think I made that one up. But no. An ex-senator really wrote that.

Compare that to Ezra Klein's much more astute diagnosis in the L.A. Times this past Sunday, which directly takes on "fairy tale" (to borrow a phrase from someone who's been an ass recently) analyses like that of Sen. Graham:

Gridlock is not something the president of the United States can solve.... It happens live on C-SPAN every day of the week. It's a function of the rules of the Senate, where 40 senators can refuse to end debate on legislation and thus doom its chances of passage. Because of the undemocratic nature of the Senate, which gives Montana as many senators as California, those 40 senators can represent as little as 11.2% of the population.

But it's not up to the president. There are a variety of fixes for a filibuster-happy minority. The media, for example, could start accurately reporting the cause of the gridlock, shaming the relevant senators and increasing political pressure to compromise. The voters could eject politicians who refuse to compromise, laying down an electorally enforced preference for a functioning government. The Senate majority could change the rules, essentially eliminating the filibuster. Groups such as Unity '08 could arise and, rather than wasting everyone's time with idle fantasies of ever more dreamy executives, could campaign against Senate rules that are undemocratic and hostile to progress.

Klein hits the nail right on the head. Sure, a less partisan president than George W. Bush should be nice. But so long as a determined minority can have their way in the senate, how can we possibly expect there to be no gridlock?

My only gripe with Klein's analysis is that eliminating the filibuster doesn't really fix the problem. Sure, senators representing 11.2% of the population couldn't block legislation. But since you would only need 51 senators, instead of 60, to pass a bill, an even smaller minority than it takes now could pass deeply unpopular legislation.

The solution, obviously, is to fundamentally transform the senate some it better represents population. The fact that California gets as many senators as Wyoming is deeply offensive to the principle of one person, one vote. Obviously that's unlikely to ever happen, but it sure would be a better use of Unity '08's time and money than trying to elect a moderate Democrat just because he labels himself an independent.


m said...

"A president should reasonably expect his or her cabinet will be made up of people who agree with his values and policy prescriptions."

Sure, but wouldn't we rather a President attempt to surround themselves with the most qualified and educated masters of their respective fields when forming said policies and prescriptions?

Rather than stooping to the appointment of yes-man stooges and special interest placating appointees?

Wouldn't we rather a president endeavor to the former so that they can ensure the information and perspective upon which their administrations' policies are based is a comprehensive and nonpartisan as possible?

Of course they can expect their appointees to carry out the policies of the administration. A president should also expect that said appointees involve themselves in the process, as opposed to merely carrying out the ill-informed directives of a secretive inner circle of unqualified advisors. Like what's happening right now.

You're concerns seem valid, but I think you're too quick to dismiss the point based on what seems a frighteningly narrow view of the responsibilities to the electorate and President should fundamentally have when making said appointments.

His or her policies need to be formed in the public's interest before it satisfies any special or partisan interest, and a President cannot expect to be able to actually accomplish that task without surrounding themselves with the best of the best.

Usually declaring someone as such stems from, at least partially, a personal approval of an individual's qualifications and accomplishment. If the President thinks he's hired the best person for the job, that person should be empowered to disagree with the Administration if their policies are fundamentally flawed.

Said appointees should also be deeply involved in the creation of policy, hand in hand with the administration, should they not?

Then doesn't your point essentially become moot?

m said...

'-"Our citizens must be educated to use their powers for effective participation in the political process."

You probably think I made that one up. But no. An ex-senator really wrote that.'

You know why an ex-senator wrote that? Because he, apparently much more than you, understands how Washington systemically undermines education reform, and is without incentive to change.

More intelligent, socially empowered citizens theoretically means better politicians in a democracy.

As it is, most politicians are more interested in lining their pockets and protecting their careers than enacting expensive, challenging reforms that don't do anything to make their friends' or themselves wealthier for having done so.

How do you dismiss such a valid concern as asinine (correct spelling btw) without offering any kind of real qualification for it, and expect anyone reading this to take your point of view seriously?

Said tactics might work when trying to appeal to videogame enthusiasts, but when applied to an attempt at the wholesale criticism of a ed. piece that actually makes several valid points regarding partisam reform, it just seem amateur.