Is The U.S. Government Structure Governable?
Editor’s note: Two days ago Elliott Morss published an Op Ed on flaws in U.S. governance represented by the failure to even debate proposed background check legislation for gun buyers. A discussion ensued between Dr. Morss and a reader and contributor, Richard P. Rust, which has led to this posted debate.
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Democracy Is Broken: The Shameful Gun Vote of the US Senate
For more than I year, I have been documenting that special interests groups rather than the will of the people determine what Congress legislates and what actions the US takes internationally. It does not matter whether it is health policy, bank reform, educational standards, energy, or where/when the US launches the next war.
Last Wednesday, the 17th, the US Senate documented better than anything to date just how broken the US democracy has become. In a series of votes, interests of the gun producers and their lobbyists prevailed.
Read the rest at GEI Opinion.
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The Disunited States of America
Written by Richard P. Rust
Many Americans these days worry that their country’s best days are behind it. They complain that government isn’t on their side and the political system seems unable to address the nation’s ills. Their concerns are justified, as the U.S. government and political system, as currently structured, are dysfunctional.
I see many reasons for this. I believe the core problems are structural, not political. They include the death of a truly independent press and the rise of corporate media, campaign finance, congressional district configurations, the modern filibuster and the Founding Fathers ill-advised, but necessary, political deal where each state regardless of population was assigned two Senators.
In addition, the stalemate on major economic policy shifts in Washington protects the current economic status quo which has the nation’s wealthiest individuals and corporations enjoying financial rewards than dwarf what existed at any time in the nation’s history. Not surprisingly, those economic elites, popularly known as the 1%, have become a quiet and effective force that promotes the dysfunctional government which by doing little or nothing protects their interests.
The 1% and the Status Quo.
The top 1% have never been richer. They have never commanded so much of the annual income generated by the economy. They have not carried a smaller burden in regard to taxes on their income since the late 1920s. The tepid recovery from the Great Recession, which has done little to dent unemployment or increase wages for most Americans, has accelerated the financial gains of the super-wealthy to warp speed warp. In one example, from 2009 to 2011, the net worth of the upper 7 % of U.S. households grew by 28% while for the bottom 93% it dropped 4%.
For U.S. corporations, especially multinational giants, the last few years have been a golden age. Profits hit a 60-year high in 2011. And while the statutory 35% corporate tax rate is the highest in the world, hardly any companies pay it. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the country’s leading companies routinely claimed their federal tax expenses were 25 to 50% of their worldwide profits. Now, most report less than half that share.
With lots of money to spend, very many of the nation’s richest people and corporations have organized to keep things just the way they are. They now spend lots and lots of money toward that end. Any objective analysis of the impact of corporate special interest money on the election process will conclude that it is undermining American democracy in myriad ways. The disconnect between what polls show Americans favor in regard to a whole range of solutions to the country’s ills and what the government in Washington delivers has never been greater. The cause is that elected officials are more dependent on the benefactors who fund their campaigns than they are on the opinions of their constituents.
Public financing of campaigns and/or forcing television station owners to provide free or drastically discounted air time would make elections more fair. The idea that transparency in reporting where campaign funds come from could minimize the problem was a convenient fiction, which is now moot since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the door to unlimited, secret corporate funding of campaigns.
As a realist, I am pretty sure proposals to make election more fair by limiting the power of money are non-starters, because the politicians who have to pass such proposals and, as noted, their benefactors like the status quo.
I do not think term limits offer any panacea. To the contrary, I think they would be counterproductive. First, eventually a mandarin class of legislative “experts” would emerge in Congress who would assist (more accurately direct) neophyte legislators on what to vote on and how to vote. That mandarin class would be even more influenced by special interests than the staffs now at work.
Next, voters would be denied the opportunity to re-elect effective, experienced, knowledgeable, honest and popular legislators. That is certainly undemocratic.
Having been a senior staff aide to U.S. Senator Dan Inouye, who in almost 49 years in office never stopped serving the people of Hawaii and championing liberal causes and the national interest, I don’t see that his longevity was harmful to his state or the country. I’d say the same for Ted Kennedy, Carl Levin, Pat Leahy and hundreds more.
The problem with longevity in office is more a function of Gerry-mandered Congressional districts. The best solution to that conundrum would be to de-politicize the process of drawing Congressional district lines – taking it out of the control of partisan state legislatures.
Gerry-mandered Congressional Districts and Gridlock.
Legislators, using highly sophisticated computer programs and granular data bases with enormous amounts of demographic and political data on citizens, funded by private interests, draw district lines that pack the other party’s voters in a few districts, limiting the number of districts they can win, and/or scatter voters across districts, denying the other party reliable voting blocs in a district large enough to win. Election outcomes are pretty much pre-ordained, safe seats are almost ubiquitous and democracy is the loser.
Gerry-mandering by Republicans, who won control of many states in 2010 – following the Census – created new district lines that locked their electoral and governing advantages in place. In 2012 although over 1.2 million more voters in Congressional races chose a Democrat, the Republicans ended up with 33 more seats and kept control of the House. Barring a huge and unlikely anti-Republican wave in 2014, 2016 or 2018, control of Congress won’t change hands for the rest of this decade. Gridlock is here to stay.
Legislators who hold safe seats have little incentive to compromise on policies that gin up ideological issues – as most important issues do. Conservative legislators fear challenges from their right flanks and to keep such challenges at bay refuse to compromise with Democrats.
The design of Congressional districts should be in the hands of non-partisan commissions. Their charge should be to draw districts that maximize contiguity and population balance. They should be prohibited from drawing districts with thin threads of land connecting entirely different parts of a state that give one party insurmountable advantages.
Again as a realist, I am pretty sure proposals to depoliticize drawing Congressional district lines are non-starters, because the politicians who have to pass such proposals and, again, their benefactors like the status quo.
The super-majority rule has crippled the Senate.
The new Senate, unlike the one I worked in, has made it a matter of course that 60 votes are necessary to pass any bill or budget, to approve any Presidential court or key executive branch nominee, to authorize regulators to regulate and to do just about anything. Unless and until those rules are changed, the Senate will remain a place where progress goes to die.
The Founding Fathers’ compromise that undermines compromise.
Perhaps the most intractable obstacle to a more effective government goes back to when the Founding Fathers created the United States of America. They did so in order to replace the dysfunctional first collective government established under the original Articles of Confederation. Meeting in Philadelphia, they were convinced that the nation needed a strong central government in order to ensure a viable future.
They were politicians engaged in the most political of activities – forging a government. They made many political compromises – good, benign and bad – to succeed.
The most damaging compromise over the long run was allowing slavery to exist and conceding to the slave holder states the right to count each slave as 3/5ths of a human being in determining how many representatives they could send to Congress. The stain of slavery and the legacy of racism is America’s original and continuing sin.
The selection of Washington, D.C. – a city that hardly existed – as the capital was another key compromise.
But the compromise that now haunts the effectiveness of the nation’s government was the creation of a Senate with two representatives from each state regardless of population. It was an essential compromise, because without it, the smaller states would not have ratified the constitution. The smaller states saw the Senate as a bulwark against big states using the power of size to control their eventual destiny.
In 1790, the smallest state was Delaware with a population of 58,000 and the largest was Virginia with a population of 455,000 not including slaves. The ratio of small to large was 1 to 8. Today, the smallest state is Wyoming with a population of half a million and the largest is California with a population of 38 million. The ratio of small to large is 1 to 76. Every Wyoming citizen through their Senators has 76 times the potential political influence of any citizen of California. It’s nuts and anti-democracy.
When compounded by the practice of the modern filibuster, the two Senators per state set up is crippling the ability of the country to govern itself. Again, as a realist, it is clear that the structure of the Senate is here to stay, first because the Constitution would have to be amended, and again the elites are happy as is.
Unhappy Days Are Here To Stay.
So, although as an optimist by nature, I am loath to accept the reality of where we are, “the Disunited States of America” is here to stay. The deep structural changes that would be required to make things work aren’t in the cards.
Perhaps, the best that can be hoped for is we stumble along and the fact that the rest of the world has similar, but different, structural impediments to highly effective government will keep us in our relatively secure place.
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Response to Richard Rust: There are Solutions
Richard Rust (RR) makes a number of excellent points, but I have a slightly different take on some of the issues.
“I believe the core problems are structural, not political.”
You go on to mention campaign finance, congressional district configurations, the modern filibuster and the political deal where each state got two Senators. Not to parse matters too finely, but these items sure sound political to me.
“The top 1% have never been richer.”
One hears this often. I believe distinctions are in order. Americans do not begrudge real entrepreneurs making tremendous sums of money, where real entrepreneurs are defined as people with ideas who find ways to make them commercially successful. In fact, Steve Jobs has become a cult hero to college-age kids. I believe the real anger is focused at two groups: “bureaucrats” who fell into their jobs in large corporations via the corrupt head-hunter consulting game and more importantly, the CEOs of US banks that collapsed causing the global recession. What can be done about it? For some time, I have argued depository institutions should not be allowed to gamble with our money. If we limited FDIC insurance to banks that managed their own loans and did not trade, we would remove the justifications for monstrously high bank salaries.
Should there be an upper limit on take-home pay? I think so. People with too much money run out of ideas on how to spend it constructively. They ultimately spend excessive amounts on larger and larger houses they don’t live in. I have suggested $7.5 million as a cap. It should provide $375,000 after tax without drawing down capital.
“As a realist, I am pretty sure proposals to limit the power of money are non-starters, because the politicians who have to pass such proposals and their benefactors like the status quo.”
Politicians like the situation as it now is: special interest groups get them elected and when they get to Washington, the do what these groups want them to do rather than what the people who elected them want them to do. Maybe the American people will wake up and force through campaign reforms. They have the power to force change….
“I do not think term limits offer any panacea.”
We are not talking about panaceas here. We are talking about marginal changes that will make a horribly flawed plan somewhat better. Sure, we can all point to great statesmen. But for every great statesman, you probably have two or three elected officials on one or another of the special interest gravy trains. At least with term limits, the politicians would not need to cow-tow to special interests in their final term (unless they wanted a job as a lobbyist with a particular special interest group). But I agree with Rust that focusing on term limits takes attention away from what is essential: reducing monies available for campaigns.
RR is concerned about gerrymandering. He says:
“The design of Congressional districts should be in the hands of non-partisan commissions.”
Again as a realist, I am pretty sure proposals to depoliticize drawing Congressional district lines are non-starters, because the politicians who have to pass such proposals and their benefactors like the status quo.” I am more optimistic than you here. As this NYT article points out, progress is being made.
“Perhaps the most intractable obstacle to a more effective government goes back to when the Founding Fathers created the United States of America….the compromise that now haunts the effectiveness of the nation’s government was the creation of a Senate with two representatives from each state regardless of population.”
I agree this has created problems. As I mentioned on the gun vote, the populations of states where both senators supported background checks were more than twice as large as those where both senators opposed.
However, the Senate “system” was created to avoid tyrannies of the majority. Maybe this concern is overblown. But looking more broadly at the Constitution, it would work quite well if Supreme Court judges interpreted as an evolving set of rules. Strict interpretations are ludicrous. If our forefathers saw how the Second Amendment is being interpreted today….
RR is more pessimistic than I when he says:
“The Disunited States of America is here to stay. The deep structural changes that would be required to make things work aren’t in the cards.”
What did A. Lincoln say about fooling the American people all of the time? I believe the key is to keep reminding Americans of just how bad their system of governance has become.
About Richard P. Rust