At Huffington Post a few days ago, Michael Brenner, lamenting the current display of plutocracy in Congress, had this to say:
”We vaunt American democracy as a stellar model for the world. The bizarre spectacle now on display in Washington as the White House and the Congress tussle over health care “reform” is hardly an advertisement from our prime export product. Consider the following. The nation’s entire medical system is being reshaped by six Senators meeting behind closed doors for weeks. All we know of the proceedings is through puffs of smoke leaking under the doors. The other 529 members of Congress twiddle their thumbs awaiting the conclave’s outcome. The gang of six composes three Republicans and three Democrats from states that cumulatively contain less than 3% of the country’s population. All are more conservative than the large majority of Democrats who control 60 Senate seats and much more conservative than most Democratic Representatives in the House. They have just killed the “public option” that is favored by 72% of the American public. They have also rejected out of hand the provision for financing the costs of the program via a tax on the rich as approved by the key committee in the House. So, too, for the Employer Mandate that has been at the heart of all serious proposed plans until the gang of six decided otherwise.”
The irony of Brenner’s lament, of course, is that “American Democracy” is just not very democratic when it comes to the workings of our Government. That’s the problem. Lack of democracy starts with the framers specification of indirect election of Senators. It continued with the Supreme Court and lifetime terms for Justices. The President was to be selected by independent electors chosen by the State legislatures. A lot of this changed over time, but, of course, the Electoral College thwarted the will of the people as late as the year 2000, and the Supreme Court is still comprised of only nine justices selected for life. Even though many democratic elements were added to the US system over time, many anti-democratic elements were maintained or even added. In the legislature, the development of the seniority system, and the filibuster in the Senate, introduced heavy constraints on the popular will. In addition, apportionment is heavily manipulated by state legislatures to safeguard the rural influence in Congress all through the United States at the expense of more dynamic urban and suburban interests. Moreover, the creation of the Federal Reserve, and its insulation from politics has led to the curious situation where the President supposedly has the responsibility for the state of the economy, yet the Federal Reserve has most often had much more influence on the economy than the President. Finally, in the modern Presidency we’ve seen the growth of presidential power, interrupted a bit by the Ford/Carter eras, but then increasing again starting with Reagan, until the claims of unprecedented executive power, accompanied by legally questionable actions, we’ve recently seen from the Bush Administration. This executive power has, thus far, been at once ultimately responsible to democratic constraints, and quite capable of manipulating the consent of the population and the Congress in certain areas related to national security, so that it quite often masters and escapes those constraints. On the other hand, where national security is not involved, the power of the president is often constrained by an anti-democratic (small “d”) Congress, even when the president reflects a popular desire to solve certain persistent social problems.
All of these anti-democratic elements are inter-related. But untying the gordian knot they form is heavily dependent on legislation Congress is willing to pass, and that, in turn, is very dependent on the capability of Senators to use the filibuster and the seniority system to bloc all change, or to, at least, exact a heavy toll for their agreement in the form of concessions favorable to their States or districts, at the expense of the common interest. So, I think the filibuster and the seniority system are at the center of the anti-democratic elements we see in the US political system. When we add the influence of lobbyists, who are better funded than they ever have been in the past, to these anti-democratic levers, we can see why plutocracy is emerging in the United States. Powerful and rich corporate interests provide legislators with information and financial support they need to communicate with their constituents and construct a narrative capable of persuading them that they’re being well-represented. The flow of information and financial support is constant. It’s an everyday thing. But the flow of information and financial support from constituents is intermittent, and waxes and wanes with the mass media attention given to particular issues. Political parties appeal to the public at large, and aggregate interests broadly. Their interest is in programs that fulfill public needs, as they interpret those needs. But what the parties want to validate in the form of campaign promises and broad programs, always takes a back seat to what lobbyists and corporatists want, because the filibuster and seniority systems in Congress give individual committee Chairpersons and Senators great power relative to party leaders. It is power they can use to obstruct change and defend the interests of lobbyists and corporatists against the forces of change in general, and against specific changes that the parties may have promised to the public.
The big problem with all this is that the United States of America, like any complex adaptive system, needs to change in response to problems that develop in the course of time. Those problems are caused by both internal and external factors and by social, economic, technological, cultural, and political dynamics that are uncontrolled. If a political system is going to work in the long run, it needs to be able to solve those problems through its operations. Immobilist political systems, those that can’t pass new legislation to meet their serious problems, eventually become unstable, and cease to serve the societies of which they are a part. That is the problem that now threatens us.
Years ago, we used to make fun of the French and Italian Political systems, because they were so fragmented that their parliamentary Governments were constantly falling, while failing to solve their most serious problems. But these days, it is we who cannot achieve or maintain a sufficiently powerful consensus to move our society forward. How many years has it been since we recognized that we needed to meet serious energy, conservation, environmental, and climate problems? How many years has it been since we realized that American public schools were in trouble? How many years has it been since we recognized that economic inequality in America was increasing? How many years has it been since we recognized that we had no control over immigration to the United States? How many years has it been since we realized that our health care system needed reform? And how long has it been since we recognized that we had serious problems of structural poverty and unemployment? Even when we move against short-term problems such as the current recession, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we cannot develop and maintain a consensus about what to do to solve these problems. So, our “solutions” are inadequate and short-term problems take much longer to solve than would otherwise be the case, and sometimes become long-term problems that are not solved for generations.
I’ve said that at the center of the gordian knot of maladaptiveness, lies the filibuster in the Senate, and the seniority system in both houses of Congress. We need to get rid of those practices so we can begin to fix the other problems with simple majorities, and party discipline, in both Houses of Congress. The filibuster should be handled first using “the nuclear option,” as I’ve explained in another place. It takes only a majority vote to exercise the nuclear option. And, once it is done, the filibuster need never come back because the procedural rule of the Senate would be superceded by the act of exercising the nuclear option.
The Seniority system will be harder to handle in the short run since the junior members of the House and Senate who stand to gain the most from abolition of the system, would probably be afraid to move against it, while immersed in a Congressional session. Also, the political process of overturning it would gain much greater momentum if opposition to the seniority system became a Party commitment in a Congressional election. If this could be done, and the Party advocating change were to win the election, the next Congress could be organized into committees whose leadership was appointed at the pleasure of the Speaker and the Majority Leader without seniority considerations entering into the process. This would increase the power of the Speaker and Majority Leader relative to the members and greatly improve party discipline.
The United States is now a maladaptive giant whose political system cannot solve its national problems. While there are many aspects of its failure to adapt, its inability to pass legislation with simple majorities in both Houses is a major factor in its immobilism, and this, in turn, is related to the way the filibuster, the seniority system, and the system of lobbying interact. We really can’t do anything about lobbying without fixing the other two problems first, because those who benefit from lobbyist funding will simply refuse to pass anti-lobbying legislation, as they are now doing. But we can do something about the filibuster and the seniority system, if we mobilize opinion against them, and get people to understand that their Government is the best that money can buy primarily because of these two features of Congress. So let’s stop lamenting the disappointing outcomes in reform legislation we have seen this year, and begin to work against these two important props of our immobilist and dysfunctional political system. There is no room in American Democracy for either of these two anti-democratic elements.