Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Partisan Bickering Blocks Legislative Action

Written from Palm Springs, Calif.--

The Founding Fathers did not envision the growth of political parties in the American system of government, but we have been stuck with them since the Federalist consensus was broken in the first decade after the Constitution went into effect.

Now, in the runup to the 2008 elections, polling indicates the American people have had their fill of both parties and that the electorate is looking for both a President and a Congress that will not be paralyzed by partisan disputes. At the moment, much constructive action in both state and federal government is being stymied by incessant bickering.

The bickering -- preventing absolutely required decisions in government -- was the subject of two articles in yesterday's Los Angeles Times -- one by George Skelton, the newspaper's state political columnist, on the California Legislature's inability to come to grips with either the state's water needs or an honest reapportionment of its own seats, the other by Noam Levey of the paper's Washington Bureau on the inability of Congress and President Bush to agree on a course that would suspend the rapid spread of the Alternative Minimum Tax to millions of middle-class taxpayers.

In both cases, the strife between the political parties is doing more than just impeding action, it is blocking it. It is becoming apparent that only if a single party holds the presidency and filibuster-proof majorities in Congress, and the governorship and better-than-two-thirds in the Legislature, very little can be accomplished. Since it is not often, such commanding positions are assembled in the American democratic system, government, on major issues like water, reapportionment or taxes often becomes bogged down. (The paralysis often is compounded by the fact that the political parties are themselves divided both ideologically and sectionally, preventing assembling working majorities even when one party is in total command).

Again, this is another example of the British system of democracy being superior to our own. In Britain, the parliamentary majority is the government, and party discipline is much greater. If the Prime Minister wants something, almost always he can achieve it, and if the Prime Minister loses the confidence of his own majority in Parliament, he is either quickly replaced, or new elections are called. In 1940, when the government of Neville Chamberlain proved incapable of fighting World War II, Chamberlain was forced to resign, and Winston Churchill was named Prime Minister, coming to the rescue. Similarly, in World War I, when the Asquith government faltered, Lloyd George came to power and was much more effective.

One can only conclude that if the British system had been in force in this country, the Democratic majority in Congress assembled in the 2006 election would have been able to replace President George W. Bush in short order and institute new policies. Instead, there has been a deadlock which threatens war funding, and nothing much will happen until after the forthcoming election. Some might argue that at least half of Bush's second term has been wasted, and that in our system, we have in effect had a lame duck in the White House since 2006.

In yesterday's column, Skelton noted that the paralysis in the California Legislature has more and more led to a proliferation of ballot initiatives. Various interest groups, noting the incapacity of the Legislature to act, have opted to circulate petitions to bring issues, such as water and reapportionment in the present context, to the ballot, where they can be resolved by popular vote.

The trouble with this is, first, that it is a violation of the principles of representative government. Supposedly, under our system, we elect legislators who develop the expertise to decide complicated issues more ably than the public could. But in modern California, not only have the legislators abdicatd this responsibility, but they cannot assume it, in part, because under term limits they are not serving long enough to develop this expertise.

Then, second, when a partisan minority can block action, it simply compounds the mess. And the reason the minorities are so numerous, why popular attitude shifts are not followed quickly by the assembling of new majorities, is that the legislators have quietly agreed between themselves to gerrymander districts in such ways that incumbents almost always win. In California, we have the extremely skillful gerrymanderer, Michael Berman, to thank for this embroglio. He has fashioned each redistricting in the interests of incumbent legislators and congressmen, taking away the right of the people to engineer partisan changes through attitude swings reflected in election results.

Another further complication is that, increasingly, the ballot propositions have been invalidated, or interpreted, by the courts. Thus, quite frequently, the popular votes do not decide issues either.

It is indeed a mess, and something is going to have to give, eventually. But when, and exactly what is going to happen?

On the Alternative Minimum Tax, one cannot escape the impression that this constitutes an intentional tax increase done in a furtive manner so that the Congressmen and women who voted for it can hope to escape responsibility in the minds of the electorate, most of whom do not readily understand these things.

On the water issue in state government, it seems clear that the future prosperity of our arid state is being compromised by the inability of the Legislature to act, and that it is by no means certain that a popular majority can be assembled either. We are all threatened because our system just doesn't work.



Blogger Evan Ravitz said...

"Representative Government" has no principles! Congress has rolled over for wars of agression, torture, domestic spying and so much more!

Government cannot reform itself anymore than it can investigate itself. CITIZENS are the source of reform: ballot initiatives are the origin of everything from Women's Suffrage (in 13 states, before Congress went along) to Medical Marijuana (8 of 13 States got it by initiative) to "Clean Elections" (6 of 7 states got them by initiative.

What is needed is easier, better (more deliberative) and NATIONAL ballot initiatives. ALL you can do now is beg "representatives" for mercy -good luck with that!

By far the best project for national initiatives is headed by Sen. Mike Gravel. Registered voters can now vote to ratify his National Initiative for Democracy at Vote.org, much as citizens -NOT the existing 13 legislature- ratified the Constitution at the Conventions!

"The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions
of government." --George Washington

12/14/2007 1:01 PM  

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