America the ungovernable


When two tribes go to war … House Speaker John Boehner. Photo: AP

Two of the most powerful men in America crossed paths in the lobby of the White House last Friday.

“Go f— yourself,” said the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, to Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate Majority Leader.

Reid was startled, according to the account in Politico, which used a handful of interviews to piece together the moment. “What are you talking about?” he responded.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Photo: AP

“Go f— yourself,” repeated Boehner by way of clarification.

You can read a lot into such snarling profanity being tossed about only a few metres from the Oval Office.

You get a sense of the frustration and fog and the mistrust of the endless negotiations over the package of tax increases and spending cuts that became known as the fiscal cliff. And you can get a sense just how tough Boehner’s past couple of months had been. Republicans had failed to win the White House and the Senate, and had lost ground in the House.

He was left to do business with a reinvigorated Democratic Party and, all the while, despite his own urgings, the hardliners in his own caucus were sticking to the tactics they had adopted four years ago – relentless parliamentary-style opposition.

And in it too you can hear an echo of the general disgust and frustration of the American people at the abject failure of their core political institution.

The 112th Congress – a body only formally laid to rest on Thursday with the swearing in of the 113th – failed in its basic duties so comprehensively that it has prompted many observers to wonder if America can any longer be properly governed without significant reform.

Look at its record. With Republicans advocating austerity and Democrats stimulus to speed the soporific economic recovery, the 112th was unable to come to any agreement over budget measures.

Instead it created the fiscal cliff – a grab-bag of tax increases and sweeping spending cuts that would be so destructive when they kicked in that the two parties would be forced to come to an agreement. Then the 112th missed its own deadline and fell off the cliff.

This week’s last-minute legislative patch will hold only for the next month or two.

While they were busy helping to create this mess, Republicans sought political advantage by refusing to increase the debt ceiling – the legal authority the government needs to pay its debts. Their brinkmanship was so destructive that America lost its AAA credit rating for the first time in history, with the ratings agencies explicitly calling out the failure of governance as the reason for the downgrade.

As Ezra Klein wrote for Bloomberg this week, the 112th achieved nothing of note in housing, energy, stimulus, immigration, guns, tax reform, infrastructure or climate change. In a period of crisis it passed 220 laws, the least on record.

In April last year two of Washington’s most respected non-partisan pundits – Thomas Mann of the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution and Norman Ornstein of the traditionally conservative American Enterprise Institute – joined forces in an attempt to diagnose the political malaise. The result was the book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.

In it they argue that America’s political system – built as it is around institutional checks and balances – is simply not equipped to deal with aggressive parliamentary style all-out opposition, exactly the sort of politics adopted by the Republican Party after its loss to Barack Obama in 2008.

The GOP’s aggressiveness heightened after it won back control of the house in the mid-term elections of 2010, with many of the newcomers belonging to the Tea Party.

Since then the party became “an insurgent outlier – ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition”, they write.

Speaking to the Herald this week Mann said many of the most radical among the party were voting against the interests of the nation – and even of the GOP – to defend themselves in primary contests that attract the most radical voters.

Worse, he says, a network of conservative political action committees, think tanks and pundits work together to threaten any candidate who does not toe the ideological line.

David Frum, the former George W. Bush speechwriter (one of the team that gave us the “axis of evil”) told the Herald that some in this network, which he calls “the conservative entertainment complex”, are involved in this radical political machine for personal profit, at the long-term expense of the party.

Mann says he believes that following the 2012 election and in the face of polling that shows the Republican party is copping most of the blame for the state of Congress, the party’s more moderate hands might be able to bring some of the self-described “young guns” into line.

Mann believes this faction will want to act on immigration reform for fear of being marginalised, while recent discoveries in shale gas and advances in fracking technology will leave some room for movement in energy policy. Business interests will force both parties to act on infrastructure. In any case, “the 113th congress could hardly match the abysmal record of the 112th”, he says.

Speaking from New Orleans where he was teaching a course on the relationship between the individual and the community to a group of local and state politicians, the former Republican congressman Mickey Edwards says he agrees with Mann and Ornstein that parliamentary-style opposition is damaging Congress, but he blames both parties.

“In a parliamentary system the opposition can scream and holler and moan as much as they like, but they can’t do much about it until the next election.”

This is not the case in Congress, where decision-making demands support from across the aisle, and where Congressional rules such as the Senate’s filibuster can be used by a ruthless minority to prevent a majority from passing legislation.

He notes that in 37 of America’s states the state government sets the political districts, and incumbent state governments enthusiastically gerrymander on behalf of their federal colleagues. As each district becomes more lopsidedly Democratic or Republican, there is less incentive for political moderation.

While Republicans have (until the early hours of New Year’s Day) intransigently refused to raise revenue via increased taxation, says Edwards, Democrats have been equally intransigent in their refusal to consider reducing spending on the greatest siphons from the government coffers – the three so-called entitlements, Medicare (healthcare for the elderly) Medicaid (healthcare for the poor) and Welfare.

Protection of the entitlements has become a Democratic shibboleth, and between the three of them they soak up two-thirds of the US budget, but are quarantined from annual budgeting.

Edwards says Congress will not again operate as it was designed to until significant reforms are introduced, particularly creating non-partisan methods for drawing up districts and appointing Congressional office holders.

But he sees a broader societal problem in the collapse of public education. “We don’t teach civics any more. So many people do not know how government is supposed to work.

“Imagine if someone running for election today got up and said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country?’

“He would be dead, he would not have a chance.”

Asked what he thought of a recent poll that found Congress had just 8 per cent support, Edwards said: “If 8 per cent of Americans supported that Congress, they weren’t paying attention.”

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