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A Bit Of A Conundrum

Monday, March 30, 2009
As anyone who reads this blog knows, I have deep reservations about the accumulation of political power in the hands of executives, particularly the presidency. Every week there's another sign that the White House as evolved from the "vital center of action" it was during the Cold War era into the only game in town. Recent examples would include Obama administration excluding Congress from the policymaking process in Afghanistan and the reliance of the Treasury and the Fed to deal with the financial crisis with Congress playing very much a secondary role. I'm happy that some others have started to notice the concentration of power in the hands of the president by the likes of Bruce Ackerman and John Balkin, among others, but for too many of punditocracy and American citizenry there's far too much willingness to transform the president into an elected dictator with a fixed term.

Ideally Congress should re-assert its role as the chief legislative branch. It should assert itself in both foreign policy (where it should be a partner to the executive) and domestic policy (where it should predominate). That's my favored outcome.

When I refer to Congress, I am most definitely not speaking of this Congress. The current Congress is far too ready to sell out the nation's future for personal political advantage. One might claim that such a state of affairs is inevitable, but in the past Senators and Representatives playing a leading role in public affairs. Whatever one thinks of the substance of the Republican Congress of 1995-1996, they most certainly acted as the equal of the White House, if not more. It might even be that Congress' present pusillanimity is a product of its weakness. Should they assume greater responsibility and demonstrate such to the public, they might act responsibly.

A lot of liberals are frustrated with the Democratic Congress today, particularly with the Senate. The Democrats are all too willing to sell our civil liberties and to lavish patronage on their campaign contributors and home state industries. I think the recent posts from Yglesias, Chait, and Klein to this effect have a great deal of merit. I think Chait is right when he points to the willingness of Democrats in Congress to cater to business interests at the expense of the country. Ezra has a point when he says that the institutional incentives are more important than party discipline, but I think he's gliding over Chait's other explanations: that the Democratic moderates haven't learned that they won't get re-elected if the President is seen as week, and that there are a lot of "pro-business" Democrats and an entirely "pro-business" Republican Party, which makes it extremely difficult to get anything meaningful done on health care, financial regulation, and the environment - all of which impinge of business.

Let me just quote Chait here, because I think he has his finger on the main problem.

A second factor encouraging Democrats to buck their presidents is the role of the rich and business interests. Unless you are a high school student reading this article in your civics course, in which case I'm sorry to dispel your illusions, you will not be stunned to learn that the affluent carry disproportionate political weight with elites in both parties. So, while people who earn more than $250,000 per year make up just a tiny slice of the electorate, they make up a huge chunk of any congressman's friends, acquaintances, and fund-raisers.

What's more, whatever their disposition toward business in general, Democrats feel it is not just a right but a duty to slavishly attend to the interests of their home-state businesses. That is why Kent Conrad upholds even the most absurd demands of agribusiness, or why even a good-government progressive like Michigan's Carl Levin parrots the auto industry's line on regulating carbon dioxide.

Taken as a whole, then, the influence of business and the rich unites Republicans and splits Democrats. A few Republicans no doubt felt some qualms about supporting Bush's regressive, extreme pro-business agenda, but their most influential donors and constituents pushed them in the direction of partisan unity. Those same forces encourage Democrats to defect. That's why Ben Nelson is fighting student-loan reform, coal-and oil-state Democrats are insisting that cap-and-trade legislation be subject to a filibuster, and Democrats everywhere are fretting about reducing tax deductions for the highest-earning 1 percent of the population.

Whether what Yglesias implies - that most "moderate" Democrats are actually shills - or whether they would like to do the right this is irrelevant. The fact is that under our current system of campaign finance, Democrats are too beholden to the top 10% of the population to do anything that seriously impinges on their interests. They are too reliant on the funds to be raised from large corporations to challenge them. If they did so, they would be buried in money in the next election. It's really that simple.

So what does this have to do with presidential power? Just this: if the Congress is so corrupted by special interests that it can't act in the interests of the public good, then the president is the only figure with the potential to act when necessary in the common interest. One of the reasons that Congress has become a body only capable of saying "yes" or "no", and is incapable of making its "no's" meaningful, is that Congress (and especially the Senate) lacks the political will - either individually or collectively - to do anything risky. It's members are committed to their own re-election (abetted by large dollars) rather than their institution. The Congress' failure to act has opened the door to the President. All the President has done it walk through it. Placing the bulk of political power in the hands of one man has become convenient, but convenience is rarely a safe course of action for republics that wish to remain so.

So I want a strong Congress, but that Congress is going to have to be reformed first. We need real campaign finance reform and an end to the abuse practices of the Senate (such as the filibuster and the hold). Those might not be interesting topics, but liberals need to find out fast that all the good things we want for the country are going to impossibile without them. Our only other alternative is to give Obama even more power and hope he does what we want him to. Frankly I don't trust anyone that much.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:49 PM
  • I completely agree. And I would add that, although I trust Obama more than most, all of the power he has (or gets) automatically gets transferred to the Presidents who follow him. The President who preceded him grabbed far too much in the way of Executive power. I was hoping we'd get to dial that back some, not extend it further.

    By Blogger Rebecca, at 4:07 PM  
  • All of your comments are on target, but they point to the symptom, not the cause. The only reason we don't have campaign finance reform yet is because the media markets are so expensive. There are only two ways to fix that: make all federal elections free (removing money from the system completely) or allow representatives to go directly to constituents without have to prioritize which ones they talk to. The latter option requires changing the structure of Congress: expand the House so that it actually corresponds to the ratio of Reps to voters set by the founders. that would dramatically lower the costs of campaigning.

    By Blogger Marriah, at 4:28 PM  
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