Saturday, February 6, 2010

Time for the Nuclear Option?

A simple step to make America more governable

Speaking from the dysfunctional state of California, it is disturbing to see similar dysfunction take hold of the federal system, where supermajority requirements are creeping into the legislative process. In California, our fate has been paved over by popular plebiscites for lower taxes and two-thirds majorities for budget passage, (prop 13), not to mention a gaggle of smaller budgetary set-asides and special deals, all enshrined in the state constitution. What the people pass in haste, they rue at leisure, and we are ruing now how any budget can be held hostage by any third of the legislature.

That most egregious proposition in the California consitution combined the budget passage requirement and the real estate tax freeze, which ended re-assessment of property values for taxation. Through this mechanism, families can pass property to their heirs in perpetuity at their original tax rates, forming in essence an aristocratic and parasitic class of property holders. What was originally framed as a way to keep senior citizens in their homes has become a black hole of local and state revenue, and a stunning social inequity.

The lesson from California is that representatives have a place in a democratic system, and that super-majorities are extremely corrosive (read: conservative, status-quo-ist) to the point of having a legislature at all. The California proposition system has done some good, but it also allowed greed and right-wing ideology to ensconce itself in the constitution, virtually permanently. My fellow citizens may eventually come to their senses. We may call a constitutional convention, or muster enough disgust to direct it at the right place (the rules) instead of the wrong place (the politicians) through further propositions. However all that seems unlikely, and it is more likely that we will continue to muddle along, succumbing to sclerosis and inertia imposed by our now-impossible rules, crumbling under 20% unemployment, made worse by the month as all levels of government within the state fire workers.

Something similar is happening in the US senate, where the 60-vote filibuster has gradually become the defacto bar to get anything accomplished, despite the text of the constitution. What was once a theatrical performance and last resort has become an anonymous routine applied to legislation or appointments with which any Senator disagrees. As in California, the Republican party has become a do-nothing rump gleefully empowered to see that nothing gets done.

As James Fallows relates in a recent Atlantic article, this is only a part of a larger pattern of institutional sclerosis, where over time interested parties grab special favors and economic shares of the state. Whether it is public employees getting featherbedded through their unions, or businesses asking for the umpteenth tax break, everyone wants their bit, until the state becomes tied, Gulliver-like, under a thousand threads of privilege and corruption.

Reform is thus a constant struggle against conservative instincts and entrenched interests. Incumbent interests can draw on incumbant money to preserve incumbant positions. The status quo may be virtually unshakeable without an occasional revolution, as Jefferson understood.

Nevertheless, there is one thing that can be done to get us out of this paticular rut, which is to blow up the Senatorial filibuster. I used to think differently, when such issues as radical judicial nominees and preservation of the Arctic wildlife refuge hung by a filibuster-sized thread. The inherently unrepresentative nature of the Senate, where a majority might represent less than 15% of the population, might lead us into terrible policy were the filibuster broken. And the filibuster was used rarely, for exceptional issues of deep principle.

But no more. The mores of the chamber and the political landscape have changed to such an extent that this rule has outlived its usefulness. Under current rules, the civil rights acts would not have passed when they did, among much, much other legislation. The check that filibusters used to provide has become a stranglehold when combined with such unwholesome developments as rabidly ideological media, the newly-decided corporate freedom to influence elections, and a heavily polarized electorate. One reason that most democracies the world over use the parliamentary system is that whoever is voted into power can then carry out their program, whatever it might be.

Our system needs to have that characteristic as well, which would be partly enabled by ending the filibuster. One might imagine exceptions for very long-term issues like Supreme Court appointments. But even this would be unwise, since all issues taken up by the Senate have long-term ramifications. On the whole, majority rule is the constitutional provision for a very good reason, which is that enabling minorities to block routine action is unconscionable if the state is to get anything done.

  • Frank Rich gets it. Could some down and dirty arm-twisting could replace nuclear warfare? I have my doubts.
  • Lessig on the other problem of shameless corruption.
  • PR firm steps up to its personhood responsibilities and runs for congress.
  • Meanwhile, government serves its master.
  • If Obama wants jobs, he'd better do more than pray for them- make them.
  • Even Krugman gets it on the deficit, at least partly.
  • Video on thorium reactors.
  • How to regulate banking.
  • If I may toot my own horn, readers might find comments on another blogger's theological pointer entertaining.
  • More sensory illusions and perceptual time-management by the brain.

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