"Barack Obama, minting a new generation of future cynics." That was how one friend of mine - a former Hill aide turned Democratic lobbyist - predicted the Obama presidency would unravel. Now, just six months in, my friend's sardonicism seems well-judged. This isn't simply a matter of the fatal combination of the dog days of summer and a tortuous battle over healthcare reform (though that's part of it). Rather, it's the case that even a popular President, armed with a genuine mandate and an enormous quantity of goodwill seems unable to find a way through Washington's legislative thickets.
Obama arrived in the Oval Office with a sweeping liberal agenda not seen since the days of Lyndon Johnson; alas, so far, he doesn't have LBJ's clout at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. There are two schools you can blame (leftwing Democrats in the House or moderate Democrats in the Senate), but ultimately responsibility comes back to the President, even if in other, more innocent, times a President would be praised for letting Congress thrash out legislation...
It's more difficult than it was in LBJ's day, mind you. All the horse-trading that once went on in private now takes place in a world of Twitter and blogs and email and 24/7 news and a permanent campaign that is exhausting to follow, never mind survive. Everything is judged prematurely, nothing has time to settle and there's very little opportunity for proper contemplation. As a smart friend puts it, "So in effect you have a broken system where expertise is drowned out by knee jerk partisanship, overseen by whacky political activists, being managed by mostly stupid people, trying to rewrite how we manage 20% of our economy. " Failure guaranteed? Probably.
Of course, that broken system is very useful when the other party is in power. Democrats didn't mind that the system helped defeat George W Bush's social security reforms. Now, however, the boot is on the other foot. And it's fair to say that plenty of smart liberal commentators are feeling pretty bad about it. Democracy in America had a great post about this. As they note, Ezra Klein's been writing that
[Healthcare reform], like climate change, is a litmus test for our government. Both are serious, foreseeable and solvable threats to our society. One threatens to bankrupt the country. The other threatens irreversible damage to the planet we live on. Responding to such threats is the test of a political system. And our system will fail it. We will not avert catastrophic climate change. We will not protect ourselves from health-care inflation.
And it’s important to be real about this. Even if Barack Obama manages to sign a universal health care bill, that bill will be a much worse piece of legislation than the legislation he could have signed if the Senate operated on a majority rules principle. That bill, in turn, would be somewhat worse than the bill Obama could have signed if the Senate Democratic caucus could at least bring itself to set greed and egomania aside and agree to vote for cloture no matter what. And that bill, in turn, would be substantially worse than the bill Obama could sign were there no U.S. Senate at all. And the reason—the only reason—that the Senate exists at all is that it was deemed a pragmatically necessary political compromise over 200 years ago.
The dead hand of that compromise has been responsible for enormous human ills over the interim period and will continue to be responsible for such ills even under optimistic scenarios. Consider energy legislation. People will die—a lot of people—as a result of this compromise. And nobody wants to talk about it!
Congress, of course, is massively unpopular regardless of which party controls it. The public wants Congress to do stuff but also wants Congress to frustrate the bad or scary ideas the other mob propose. That's a recipe for confusion and, in the end, legislative constipation. It's like trying to brake and accelerate simultaneously.
There's an argument to be made, then, that the United States is currently in the midst of an experiment that will go some way towards demonstrating the limits of liberal democracy. Or, to put it another way, how scaleable is democracy? And how scaleable is it in a country as diverse and disputatiousl as the United States? Can you actually govern a country of 300m people effectively while also operating within the framework of enlightenment thought?
Democrats may argue that if the system were fixed then all would be well. I'm not so sure. I suspect size is a problem too. So many interests demands so many compromises that in turn go some way towards frustrating the original purpose of the legislation. Just as I find it tricky to imagine how you could have an effective European Government, so it is hard to conceive how Congress could actually be effective. You should expect it to be sclerotic.
So what's to be done? Well, there is that federalism thing. For understandable reasons Democrats are often leery of federalism since, for many, states rights is synonymous with Jim Crow (supported of course, by people who used to be Democrats but are these days, more likely to be in the Republican party). But that was then and times have changed.
If everyone gets to supply ingredients for a cake baked by Congress it's hardly a surprise that the end result is indigestible. Fewer ingredients and more, but smaller, cakes might produce a better result. National legislation, almost by definition, must ignore local tastes and preferences. Nor, in a country as vast as the US, does national legislation necessarily offer efficiencies of scale that outweigh their drawbacks.
Better, surely, to treat healthcare, for instance, on a state by state basis? You might not always get the exact result you want and the process might be long, tedious and messy. But it could hardly be worse than the current horror-show. Ah, but some states might be left behind! Well, so be it. That's their choice and, in the end, something that their legislators will be judged upon.
Not that healthcare is the only matter that might better be left to the states. Take farm subsidies for instance. I'm pretty sure Ezra considers them an appalling waste of money that distorts the market while offering all manner of crazy incentives. And he'd be right to think so. But if you make agricultural subsidies a matter for states, not the federal government, then at least those farm states that insist upon juicy subsidy now might have to fund those payments themselves.
A Renewed Federalism need not be the preserve of either party. Indeed it should belong to both. This would be useful in a psychological sense too: It's the United States of America isn't it? The States precede the Union and, absent any compelling reason to the contrary, they ought to be left to their own devices. Some of those devices will fail their people but, hey, so does Washington at the moment.
The concentration of both power and expectation in Washington almost guarantees frustration and disappointment. Washington makes the perfect the enemy of the good and ends up with something terrible. So why persist with it? Complaining about the Senate is all very well but unless you can change the Constitution not much is going to change there. Better to simply bypass the place entirely and look for solutions elsewhere.