Thursday, August 4, 2011

Ours Is a Government of Men, Not of Procedures

Ezra Klein's Bloomberg column makes some important points.The money paragraph is at the end:
Observers occasionally sigh deeply and blame this on bitter polarization of the two major political parties. But that’s not quite the problem. Nor is the issue that our political system is ill-designed. It’s that our political system is ill-designed for parties that are so polarized. Our system is designed for consensus. When that breaks down, the system turns on itself, its many veto points and blockages placing a chokehold on action. To escape the gridlock, the parties establish elaborate extra-congressional fixes, circumventing the political system itself. The government can still work. It just doesn’t work very well: not for liberals, not for conservatives, not for the country.

The essay's headline is "Isn't it time to admit the system is broken?", to which the answer is almost certainly "yes". The system is very broken. The public's nexus for policy accountability—the Presidency—has very limited power to affect policy outcomes. Actors with the largest ability to affect outcomes have extreme incentive to produce poor outcomes while the opposition controls the White House.

Still, observing the brokenness of "The System" shouldn't alleviate the agency of the people currently working within the system. After all, "The System" is populated by people. The decisions to maximize the use of procedural tools to gain tactical advantages at the expense of compromise were made by living, breathing, individuals who have names and faces, not the output of some game theory simulation in a poli sci major's PhD thesis. These decisions could be unmade with or without changes to Congressional procedure.

That said, in the past our response to a breakdown in social norms that prevented the use of Congressional procedure to obstruct has been to ... alter Congressional policy, as Jeff Merkley pointed out to Ezra Klein some time ago. No one has stepped up to the plate to do this yet; there have been some nibbles around the edges, but no real changes. And, surprisingly, no real prospects for procedural change on the horizon.
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