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Good Government Reforms Gave Us Bad Government

libertarian-love-country-not-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.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Michael J. Listner says:

    So it’s all the Republican’s fault. Brilliant.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 7

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Michael J. Listner: Certainly, a lot of it. We have a Democratic president and Senate and a Republican House that expects to have its way on all the big issues. That’s unrealistic and leads to constant crisis.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 24 Thumb down 2

  3. Scott says:

    It goes to show that governing is a fine balancing act that requires restraint and wisdom. Good technocrats (and I definitely tend to trend in that direction) believe if you just have the right rules and regulations, then governing will be better. But people don’t cooperate and the answer is not more rules and regulations but more politics and politicking. Yes, elements of shadiness can creep in but it tends to smooth things out in the long run. The answer is to have better people, not better rules. Easier said than done.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. gVOR08 says:

    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.

    Who are the ideologues funding this if not the Koch bros and their ilk? Who funds Americans for Prosperity? Is there any accessible accounting of where TP funding comes from? Saw a story a few years ago about Richard Armey conducting an econ seminar for a hundred TP guys in the back room of a Denny’s. Did Armey work for free? Wasn’t it recently reported that the Koch bros have put 200 mil into a campaign to shut down the government over Obamacare? A bunch of guys sitting around a kitchen table spontaneously decided we must not have a medical device tax?

    Seriously, what is the TP really, and who is funding it? I suspect it represents not populism but a coup attempt within the Republican establishment.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  5. C. Clavin says:

    Good post.
    But this;

    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.

    is not supported by…you know…facts.
    The Kochs are well documented as supplying cash and organization to at least the most vocal elements of the Tea Party.
    I do agree that they are ideologues, with very little understanding of governing…I would add; or very little interest in governing. They are very interested in demagoguery.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2

  6. gVOR08 says:

    @Michael J. Listner: I was about to upvote that. Then I realized you were trying to be facetious.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  7. Todd says:

    I read that same article this morning, and had some of the same thoughts.

    I’ve never understood the opposition to earmarks. To my understanding, Congressmen who make deals to bring resources to their districts are doing pretty much what our founders intended them to do.

    Political parties on the other hand … nowhere in the Constitution, and actually counter productive to our form of government operating effectively.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  8. Rob in CT says:

    The Earmarks thing was bullshit from the start. An Earmark doesn’t create spending. It directs spending.

    I’d be fine with bringing back Earmarks. That said, that’s far from the driver here.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  9. C. Clavin says:

    Actually…Earmarks would generate some f’ing jobs.
    We should be building and/or fixing bridges and roads and schools, etc.
    We should be hiring teachers and firemen and cops.
    Getting rid of earmarks…just another Republican economic theory proven wrong.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  10. Moosebreath says:

    @Rob in CT:

    “The Earmarks thing was bullshit from the start. An Earmark doesn’t create spending. It directs spending.”

    I will add that earmarks have the spending directed by a person elected to be the representative of the people in the district, and therefore have a better idea of the wants and needs of the district than a bureaucrat, often based in Washington. So it was always a mystery to me why Republicans wanted to remove earmarks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  11. john personna says:

    Hmmm, on Friday, November 12, 2010 at 11:10 I wrote:

    I could also go in the direction of: “if congress critters were not spending their time creating earmarks, could they find something more productive to do?”

    Apparently I asked the wrong question.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  12. Jeremy R says:

    3) Big business has lost a lot of its power over the Republican Party

    I’ll believe this when and if we ever see the business community actually engage like they mean it (in the same ways they go after Dems). By that I mean business leaders publicly trashing GOP intransigence instead of voicing concern over the debt ceiling and then making mealy-mouthed statements calling for compromise & leadership, and business groups not just promising to help defend responsible republican actors but threatening to advertise *now* against the bad ones, and to fund primary opponents or democratic challengers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  13. al-Ameda says:

    @Michael J. Listner:

    So it’s all the Republican’s fault. Brilliant.

    No, not brilliant, just elegant in its simplicity.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  14. matt bernius says:

    Two points…

    1. On Kochs, the are arguably in “control” of the Tea Party in the same way Soros is control of Media Matters and other left wing groups. Their contributions fund efforts to push an agenda and given them a high degree of input into that push. But, as with Conservatives and Soros, I think most liberals overemphasize the importance of the Koch Brothers. If the Kochs didn’t exist, some one else would be providing the money.

    2. On big biz loss of power on the Republican party — I think what’s important is to appreciate that House Republicans are different from Senate are different from Presidential candidates. I would suggest that the effects of Big Business wane as you move from National Races to Local Races in the same way that grass root power wanes as one moves in the opposite direction. This helps explain how, despite the presence of the Tea Party and Realz Conservatives, the GOP keeps nominating Romneys and McCains for President.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  15. john personna says:

    @matt bernius:

    I don’t know why the meme shifted to “big” business.

    Republicans Are No Longer the Party of Business

    (That would be “BusinessWeek” reporting.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. David M says:

    @Moosebreath:

    I will add that earmarks have the spending directed by a person elected to be the representative of the people in the district, and therefore have a better idea of the wants and needs of the district than a bureaucrat, often based in Washington. So it was always a mystery to me why Republicans wanted to remove earmarks.

    It was a convenient way for the GOP to pretend to address spending without actually doing it. Unfortunately, it negatively impacted congressional processes, instead of being a harmless stunt.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  17. Todd says:

    @David M:

    Unfortunately, it negatively impacted congressional processes, instead of being a harmless stunt.

    That sentence could be used to describe quite a few things that have taken place over the last 10-20 years.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. Tillman says:

    Reminds me of Kevin Spacey’s line about House of Cards: “Of course it’s fiction, Congress is accomplishing things.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0