Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Too Much Democracy?

At The New Republic, former Obama budget director Peter Orszag writes that there may be too much democracy in the contemporary federal government. Polarization, he argues, leads to gridlock. As remedies, he proposes automatic stabilizers (tax and spending provisions that kick in with changes in economic conditions), backstop rules (measures that go into effect unless Congress acts) and independent commissions.

THE PROBLEM WITH such commissions is that, like automatic stabilizers and backstop rules, they reduce the power of elected officials and therefore make our government somewhat less accountable to voters. Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution at Stanford puts it this way: “There is something undemocratic about entrusting the formation of big policy decisions to expert commissions.” And yet he also goes on to note that “the process is not less democratic than having nine unelected justices with lifetime tenure and no political accountability to anyone but themselves decide such basic questions as when a woman can have an abortion and where a child can go to school.” He concludes that, despite the risks, rising polarization justifies the increased use of these types of commissions.

As the debt-limit experience vividly illustrated, by polarizing ourselves, we are making our country more ungovernable—and no one has come up with a practical proposal to deal with the consequences. I wish it were not necessary to devise processes to circumvent legislative gridlock, but polarization isn’t going away. John Adams may have been exaggerating when he pessimistically noted that democracies tend to commit suicide, yet, as we are seeing, certain aspects of representative government can end up posing serious problems. And so, we might be a healthier democracy if we were a slightly less democratic one.

Mr. Orszag's attitudes were not popular with congressional Democrats in 2010, as Matt Bai reported at the time:

As much as anyone, Mr. Orszag has promoted and carried out an effort by the White House to pry away from Congress some of the responsibility for making hard decisions, especially when it comes to the budget.

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And so, in a variety of ways, the administration has deliberately set out to create alternatives. The idea is to force Congress to make inevitable choices now, or at least to establish new mechanisms that can be used to make those choices later if the fiscal situation worsens. “The system as it is constructed now has prevented real progress on this issue,” David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser, says flatly.

Leading Democrats in the House aren’t arguing that the legislative process, with its dueling constituencies and parliamentary procedures, is necessarily the most efficient way to cut spending. But they maintain that it’s what the framers intended — and that subverting the process amounts to an assault on the democracy.

The News-Observer (Raleigh, NC) reports:

File this in the random-things-politicians-say file. Speaking to a Cary Rotary Club today, N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue suggested suspending Congressional elections for two years so that Congress can focus on economic recovery and not the next election.

"I think we ought to suspend, perhaps, elections for Congress for two years and just tell them we won't hold it against them, whatever decisions they make, to just let them help this country recover. I really hope that someone can agree with me on that," Perdue said. "You want people who don't worry about the next election."

The comment -- which came during a discussion of the economy -- perked more than a few ears. It's unclear whether Perdue, a Democrat, is serious -- but her tone was level and she asked others to support her on the idea. (Read her full remarks below.)

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Perdue's full statement (or hear what she said here):

"You have to have more ability from Congress, I think, to work together and to get over the partisan bickering and focus on fixing things. I think we ought to suspend, perhaps, elections for Congress for two years and just tell them we won't hold it against them, whatever decisions they make, to just let them help this country recover. I really hope that someone can agree with me on that. The one good thing about Raleigh is that for so many years we worked across party lines. It's a little bit more contentious now but it's not impossible to try to do what's right in this state. You want people who don't worry about the next election."