The Debt Ceiling and the Decline of American Democracy

Jacob Hacker and Oona Hathaway, both professors at Yale University, have a very good op-ed in today’s New York Times. I definitely recommend it. To sum up their argument, the U.S. has a democracy problem. The U.S. Government is unable to embody the balance prescribed in the Constitution. Congress is hamstrung by its procedures; limiting action, compromise, or perhaps most desperately needed, debate. It’s failure to foster any of these qualities leaves the presidency as the only institution positioned to take action or keep government afloat.  As they point out, this is a double edged sword. Presidential power grabs further undermine our democratic foundation (to be governed by a representative body rather than an individual) while reducing responsibility (also read: culpability) of those in Congress abdicating their responsibilities as the first branch. The idea isn’t new but the debt crisis is a particularly poignant example of just how bad it has gotten. My only quibble with the article is how they suggest to fix the problem. Their focus is the entire system, not just Congress that is a single facet of that process, so my critique is obviously limited. Hacker and Hathaway blame, in part, the Senate’s the filibuster. There is no question the filibuster has developed into a huge problem. But it isn’t the filibuster that is the reason for Congress’s decline. It was instituted long before Congress began its decline and has only become a system-threatening problem over the past 10 years. Lamenting the filibuster without dealing with the issues that make the filibuster a problem is kind treating patients symptoms without treating the disease. The filibuster, like all other rules, is simply one feature of a larger whole. The problem is not the filibuster, but how it’s being used. Of course it needs to be reformed, but changing the vote requirement to cut off debate will not make Congress an efficient institution.

The problem is deeper and more complicated than Senate debate. The problem is that parties hold too much legislative power. Former Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards (OK) wrote an interesting article in The Atlantic a few days ago. He offers several reforms, most of which are intended to undermine the parties’ hold on politics. As Seth Masket notes, most of these reforms would do little in the way of changing politics. I’ll go a step further though, several of Edwards' congressional reforms would likely increase polarization. Putting more power in the hands of minority members in Congress will only spike dilatory motions, further debilitating Congress’s already slow process. If you want to reduce party power, reforms need to make individuals less reliant on their party leaders, not more.

However, unlike Masket, I agree with Edwards’ intent. By eliminating some of the power parties’ hold, we can begin to make the politics more deliberative. It used to be that parties were seen as the champions of public debate. And they may have been the best way to represent the American people when they were broad umbrella-like groups aimed at representing the largest portion of citizens, but that is hardly the portrait political parties illustrate today. Instead, we see two groups representing increasingly narrow segments of the country. Reasoned debate has all but disappeared from public dialogue. In this way, parties no longer promote democracy; they are undermining its foundation.

The bottom line is the U.S. has moved much closer to a parliamentary system. In other words, it’s beginning to look a lot like England. The major and unchanging problem with this recent development is that Constitution specifically prescribed a non-parliamentary process. The current strength of political parties has put the U.S. into a confounding situation. The checks and balances system is not structured to manage strong, unified, party politics. Today, they are simply too strong for anything outside of unified government to function. And if last Congress was any indication, they don't function all that well even in those conditions. Parties were never meant to dominate American politics, only to facilitate compromise and form coalitions between legislators with starkly different interests. Most of the Founders’ despised parties, which is why there isn’t a single mention of parties in the Constitution. It sought to balance interests and foster compromise, not elect a party with the ability to run roughshod over the nation for 2-4 years at a time. Tyranny of the majority was just as menacing to the founders as tyranny by a monarch.