Sunday, 8 December 2013

Political Gridlock In Washington

A lot of people are asking the question as to why government in Washington is unable to respond to the wishes of the people as expressed in elections or in the national polls.

The answer is that in a presidential system when the executive and the legislature are from different parties it causes stalemate and the executive is prevented from implementing its platform.

In the current crisis President Obama is a Democrat but the House of Representatives is under Republican control. In such a situation both sides have to compromise with each other in order to pass legislation as happened in the Reagan and Clinton years. It is the inability to bridge this partisan divide that is causing the gridlock in government.

These days government seems to just muddle along from one crisis to another, kicking the can down the road until it pops up a few months later. Since President Obama took office in 2008, we have had the impasse over the extension of the Bush tax cuts and the increase in the debt-ceiling, then we had the budget crisis leading to the current draconian spending cuts (the sequester) and most recently the failure of the proposed assault weapons ban following the Sandy Hook massacre in December of last year.

The issue over the budget should have been settled in the 2012 election when the people clearly decided that the budget should not be balanced on the backs of the middle class and the poor. But the crisis still obtains.

As regards the proposed assault weapons ban, the polls show that most people favor it but the bill did not even get a vote in the Senate. On this issue the Democrats are not faultless as some Democratic Senators from red states backed away from it obviously fearing a backlash from the National Rifle Association which might harm their reelection chances. In simple terms the people cannot get legislative protection from guns designed for mass killing like the AR15 because Congress is afraid of the NRA which represents a small minority but has political influence through their big money and lobbyists.


We have had disagreements before between Congress and the President but the looming question is why in this crisis is compromise so elusive. There are two reasons.

First, we now have a new GOP, a Ayn Rand inspired party which is inflexible and uncompromising, with a fantasy philosophy that the rich do not have enough and that the poor have too much, and that there is no role for government which should be shrunk so small that "it can be put in the bathtub and drowned" according to Grover Norquist.

This contrasts with President Obama who came from humble beginnings with an appreciation of the importance of government to protect the small man and whose professional background is community oriented.

President Obama has been obsessed with bipartisan consensus and despite the philosophical differences he has reached out to Republicans (much to the disappointment of some in his party) only to get rebuffed. On the health care initiative he left the writing of the Senate health bill to a bipartisan "Gang of Six" and in return he got no Republican votes.

In the budget discussions he put entitlements (which Democrats consider as sacrosanct) on the table but there has been no reciprocity from the other side on revenues.

Second, I would be remiss if I did not say that a lot of Republicans can't come to terms with an African American being in the White House. This is what the tea party is all about hence their slogan "take back the White House".

Another question is, how the Republicans who only control the US House of Representatives can so effectively block President Obama's legislative agenda at every turn.

They are able to do it in two ways:

(1) In the Senate they use the filibuster i.e. pursue an endless debate to block legislative action. This ploy was only originally used in exceptional circumstances by both parties but between 2007 and 2009 it affected a record 70% of major legislation (New York Times, Congress Reconsidered).

It is worth mentioning that in the current Congress majority Leader Harry Reid had a chance to change the rule but took a pass presumably with his eye on the day when he could be in the minority.

(2) The Republicans have effectively used their increase in control of state legislatures in the 2010 elections to carve out an almost permanent majority for themselves in the US House through the system of gerrymandering i.e. they increased the number of districts in the areas of their support and reduced the number in Democratic areas by enlarging their size.


With the government unable to even pass a budget, the US might like to look to its neighbor to the south, Mexico, for a model for what can be done when a nation says 'enough' to self-inflicted hardship.

Since December 3, 2012 Congress set aside its differences and newly elected President Nieto and the three main political parties signed a pledge called the "Pact for Mexico" to seek 94 national reforms after suffering for years from self-inflicted gridlock. Many years of gridlock was too costly, the drug wars had gone on for too long so under the "Economy first" strategy of President Nieto the government with the backing of the legislature has taken on the big interests that for years held back Mexico in education, energy, broadcasting and telecommunications.

Mexico is now on a turnaround from past stalemates. The government has opened Pemex (the state oil monopoly) to private investment that has led to a boom in oil exports; there are new tax reforms to pay for social programs and new infrastructure; a constitutional amendment has led to a drastic improvement in education and the President has broken up monopolies in the TV and cell phone industry and made it more competitive (Christian Science Monitor - A model to end Washington gridlock: Mexico 3/24/13).

The Mexican model might not be a model to end gridlock in Washington. Today the partisan divide is much deeper and the political culture far more vitriolic than 20 or 30 years ago. The Republicans block bills proposed by President Obama though they originally supported them such as Cap and Trade, infrastructure spending, mandates under the Affordable Health Care Act, the Dream Act and raising the debt-ceiling.

It's not in the political interest of the Republicans to work with the President. They have retreated behind a firewall of gerrymandered rural districts, mainly in the south where their base of support is built on anti - Obamaism so that they cannot be seen to be working with him. GOP Senator Lindsay Graham said that criticising President Obama was "good politics" (Huffington Post-Obama criticism 'good politics': Lindsay Graham 4/2/13). Furthermore, they fear a primary challenge from their right flank.

Given Congress' unwillingness to return to bipartisanship in the US, the Mexican model is not helpful in breaking the stalemate and so I would propose that the following measures be taken to solve the structural problems in Washington:

First, in accordance with the principle that government should come from and not at the people there should be public education programs to educate people about their political interests and the workings of the political system. This can be done through the media of the local town hall and social networking. The need for this is illustrated by polls that show that people who want to cut government can't say what should be cut and as regards those who want to abolish Obamacare, when asked about its elements say they want to keep them. How can people pressure their leaders for change if they don't know what changes they want?

Second, introduce a parliamentary system to replace the presidential one. Under the parliamentary system people elect a parliament and the party with the most seats gets to form the government. Since it has the majority the government has a clear path to implement its platform and if the people don't like what the government is doing that is easily rectifiable at an early election.

The parliamentary system would remove a lot of the structural problems in the present system because:

(a) It's faster and easier to pass legislation because the executive is often members of the legislature where it possesses more votes to pass legislation. In the presidential system if the executive and the legislature are from different parties that leads to stalemate unless they can compromise, but that only leads to watered down legislation such as Obamacare which left 10 million people uninsured and does not contain a public option.

(b) In the parliamentary system a party is voted in on the basis of a platform so the will of the people is more easily instituted.

(c) In a parliamentary system a Prime Minister has less importance than a President in whom all executive power is concentrated so people are more likely to vote for political ideas rather than the personality.

Third, big money should be taken out of politics and replaced by public funding of elections. Political Action Committees and Citizens United should be abolished. This would spare us of these long election campaigns and free up Congress to spend more legislative time on the people's business and less on fundraising. More time would be available to deal with real issues like unemployment, global warming, the national debt and cyber attacks which threaten national security and industrial infrastructure and which experts agree we are unprepared to resist. Lastly it would break the stranglehold that big money has on our leaders by cutting the nexus between political office and political contributors.

One good thing that might come out of the present crisis in Washington is that it may spur people to develop more political awareness, vote their interests and be more informed to pressure both parties to return power to the people.

Victor A. Dixon
April 5, 2013

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