The failure of the congressional supercommittee to reach a deal on the budget is a sad reflection of the polarisation in the US today. But this failure has roots that go well beyond the individuals charged with coming up with a plan to reduce the deficit; they go to the very nature of the political system. And while this committee has failed ignominiously, it contains the seed of an idea that might show us a way out of paralysis.
Americans take great pride in a constitution that limits executive power through a series of checks and balances. But those checks have metastasised. And now America is a vetocracy. When this system is combined with ideologised parties, one of which sees even the closing of tax loopholes as an unacceptable tax increase, the result is paralysis.
The problems of the US system are all too apparent when compared with the classic British Westminster system: parliamentary, with first-past-the-post voting, no federalism or decentralisation, and no written constitution or judicial review. Under such a system, governments are typically backed by a strong legislative majority. The present government’s coalition is highly unusual for the UK, which typically gives the leading party a strong parliamentary majority. A simple majority plus one in the House of Commons can make or overturn any law in the land, which is why it has sometimes been referred to as a democratic dictatorship.
The American system, by contrast, splits power between a president and a two-chamber Congress; devolves power to states and local government; and permits the courts to overturn legislation on constitutional grounds. The system is deliberately engineered to put obstacles in the way of decisive government, which in turn is the result of a political culture strongly suspicious of centralised power.
The advantage of the British system with its fewer opportunities to cast vetoes is clear when it comes to passing budgets. The budget is written by the chancellor of the exchequer, who as an executive agent makes the difficult trade-offs between spending and taxes. This budget is passed by parliament, with little modification, a week or two after the government introduces it.
In the American system, by contrast, the president announces a budget at the beginning of the fiscal cycle; it is more an aspirational document than a political reality. The US constitution firmly locates spending authority in Congress, and indeed all 535 members of Congress use their potential veto power to extract concessions. The budget that eventually emerges after months of interest group lobbying is the product not of a coherent government plan, but of horse-trading among individual legislators, who always find it easier to achieve consensus by exchanging spending increases for tax cuts. Hence the permanent bias towards deficits.
In addition to the checks and balances mandated by the constitution, Congress has added a host of further opportunities for legislators to use their veto power to blackmail the system, such as the anonymous holds that any of 100 senators may place on executive branch appointments. A particularly egregious example of this is taking place today. The Obama administration has wanted to appoint Michael McFaul ambassador to Russia, but the foreign relations committee has put off action indefinitely due to the objections of certain unnamed Republican senators. Mr McFaul – formerly a professor at Stanford (and also a longtime friend) – has been senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council for the past three years and is widely regarded even by the Republicans as well qualified for the job. Foreign Policy magazine has reported that one of the holds is due to a senator wanting the federal government to build a facility in his state. As a result, the US may not have an ambassador in place in Moscow next March as the Russians vote for a new president.
If we are to get out of our present paralysis we need not only strong leadership, but changes in institutional rules. If constitutional amendments are off the table for the moment, there is nonetheless a list of reforms the US could undertake to reduce the number of veto points and simplify decision-making. One would be to eliminate senatorial holds; another would be a rollback of the filibuster for routine legislation; and a third would be a rule that would prevent legislative blackmail through irrelevant amendments.
But the most important potential change would be to move the budgeting process towards something that looked more like the Westminster system. Budgets would be formulated, as in the case of the failed supercommittee, by a much smaller group of legislators. Unlike today’s strongly partisan committee, it would have heavy technocratic input from a non-partisan agency like the Congressional Budget Office that would be insulated from the interest group pressures that afflict the sitting legislators. A completed budget would be put before Congress in a single, unamendable up-or-down vote. The procedure has already been used successfully to get around interest group deadlock in fast-track trade legislation and by the non-partisan commission that decided which military bases to close.
This proposal has no chance of being accepted in the current climate of polarisation. Newt Gingrich, one of the Republican contenders for the party’s presidential nomination, recently called the CBO a “socialist” institution. But our unaddressed fiscal problem is so great that something like it would seem essential as our economy continues to stagnate. Serving legislators are unlikely to be willing to give up their veto power soon. That is why political reform must first and foremost be driven by popular, grassroots mobilisation.
The writer is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute. His latest book is ‘The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution’
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