Good Government Reforms Gave Us Bad Government
Recent anti-corruption measures have contributed to making American government worse.
Ezra Klein‘s “The 13 reasons Washington is failing” most consists of things that readers of political blogs already understand. The the Republican Party is fractured, that gerrymandering has contributed to extremism, and that the Tea Party has outsized power is well documented. But there’s also the matter of well-intentioned reforms that have had perverse effects.
1) Earmarks are gone.
In 2011, Republicans decided to eliminate earmarks. They did this over the objection of some of their more senior members, like Mitch McConnell, who argued, correctly, that eliminating earmarks simply meant the executive branch gets to decide how to spend the money.
The argument against earmarks was that they were corrupting. They gave lobbyists something to beg for and members of Congress something to give away. But they also gave congressional leadership something to trade with. 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.
“You can’t sit down with members and say, ‘We need your vote, tell me what I can do to make this an easier vote for you, are there things that are unrelated to this that are helpful in your district?’ “ said one business trade group lobbyist who asked to remain anonymous. “That’s a killer, in my opinion. All the criticisms of Tom Delay and the old style, that worked.”
2) Too much sunshine can burn
American politics is vastly more transparent than it was a few decades ago. That sounds great, right?
In many cases, it is. But there’s a reason corporations don’t webcast their negotiations when they’re considering a merger and families don’t hit “record” when they’re having a fight. Sometimes, it’s easier to resolve disputes in private.
As Alex Seitz-Wald argues, “even transparency deserves a critical look. Hill rags and Internet gossip sheets now cover incremental legislative updates, with a focus on process, which is ugly and easily distorted for partisan gain. Leaked comments and proposed deals often stymie negotiators.”
It used to be that politicians could try and work out deals in private and then sell them in public. Now the deals essentially get worked out in public — which means it’s far easier for a delicate discussion to be crushed as fuzzy reports leak and enraged interest groups blitz the proceedings.
These two are in a way related: not only can the Republican leadership offer less to recalcitrant members to get them to go along on tough votes but the fact that the sausage making is more visible than ever before makes accepting such deals harder. Add in one of the more obvious factors on Klein’s list—the emergence of polarized media that feeds into the existing prejudices of a self-selected audience—and the Tea Party types find themselves unable to move. They start off, as many newcomers to Congress do, with unrealistic positions. In the old days, they learned to work within a system to serve their constituents. Nowadays, any movement off the extremes will be well-publicized and expose the Member to being ravaged on Fox News, The Daily Caller, and various other venues that believe Obamacare can be defeated by a minority wing in Congress if they just show enough resolve.
The next isn’t a reform so much as a development that would seem on its surface to be positive:
3) Big business has lost a lot of its power over the Republican Party
Here’s an amazing fact: The Chamber of Commerce, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting the Republican Party in the last two elections, completely supports the Democratic Party’s position right now. They’re for a “clean CR” to reopen the government. They want the debt limit raised. They’re even considering spending money to protect business-friendly Republicans from tea party challengers.
But they’re not being listened to. Nor is the Business Roundtable. ”There is an element of the more independent, tea party coalition Republicans that, frankly, don’t listen to very many people,” John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable, told Talking Points Memo. “They are on a mission, often defined on the basis of their view of the world, and they aren’t paying very much attention to what this means beyond maybe their own districts.
There are plenty of times when the business community’s agenda diverges from the public interest. But the business community needs a functioning government and a growing economy just as much as everyone else does. The problem is they helped elect a group of Republicans that isn’t particularly interested in such mundane matters of effective governance.
“The Tea Party comes in and it isn’t a case of being responsible,” says Greater Washington Board of Trade Director Jim Dinegar. “They don’t want to spend a dime, they want to reduce, reduce, reduce. It’s a very effective and destructive third party that doesn’t play well with others.”
Indeed, Big Business mostly rallied around Obamacare. For all the law’s deficiencies, it was an attempt to address real problems. Skyrocketing healthcare costs are not only bad for low-income citizens and busting the budget of government at all levels but it’s a huge burden on American corporations. Most of us get our health insurance through employer-sponsored group plans, usually at a highly subsidized rate. (I’m back in the government sector again, insured via the federal system but under a Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan.) Not only is health insurance a drain on the bottom line but it puts American corporations at a significant disadvantage against foreign competition, since most other countries pay for healthcare at the state level.
While Democratic opponents of the Tea Party paint it as an Astroturf effort directed by the Koch brothers and the evil corporations, it’s actually a populist movement funded by ideologues with very little understanding of the nuances of governing. The leadership of the Fortune 500 wants, more than anything else, stability and predictability. The Tea Party undermines that constantly through these constant self-generated crises. Business has no use for that whatsoever.