04 August 2011

A Silly Argument And A Smart One

Mark Thoma at The Fiscal Times argues that "balanced budget rules can cause rushed decisions if the statutory deadlines for achieving balance leave little time for careful deliberation" in the course of arguing that Congress is disfunctional. This is silly.

How many times in my lifetime have state or federal legislatures gotten fiscal matters done in advance in a carefully deliberated manner, rather than right at a deadline? I can't remember a year that Congress didn't have a continuing resolution or passed all of the dozen different appropriations bills separately before the deadline came and an omnibus bill had to be pushed through, even in years when we haven't had divided government.

Colorado's joint budget committee is better, but still highly deadline driven. And, one of the key's to Colorado's deadlines - a joint set of legislative rules made necessary by a short session, amateur legislature and strong legislative services division are almost impossibly to constitutionally impose on Congress.

But, Thoma also has a worthwhile point to make:

[A]nother explanation that is often put forth to explain the change in congressional behavior is that legislators today are less patriotic than they once were. That is, nation used to come before party, but those days are long gone.

But patriotism is not the problem. What has changed is that we have become, in many respects, two separate nations living within a common border. Patriotism is as strong as ever within each nation, but there is very little recognition that the needs of the other group are legitimate or have any standing at all in policy decisions.

Thus, we are no longer indivisible. Justice for my group rather than justice for all dominates the political landscape and pollutes the policy environment. Until that is fixed–if it can be fixed–no amount of rules, triggers, ticking bombs, or other devices will set it right again.

The two nations thing isn't entirely Mark Thoma's invented rhetoric. For example, Texas Governor Perry, who has campaigned for the GOP Presidential nomination in Colorado recently, has publicly said positive things about the possibility of Texas leaving the United States of American again. The partisan divide between U.S. regions is as strong as it has been in recent memory and social class divides are also more intense in the U.S. than they have been in a very long time.

It isn't just the politicans. I frequently finding myself asking what the heck Republicans are thinking, because when I ask myself what someone who hates American would do and then compare it to what they are trying to accomplish, it very frequently seems to be the same thing. My civility instincts tell me that this is a horribly bad attitude that I should try to fight, but it is what comes to the surface emotionally whenever their latest idea comes up. Whatever agenda they are advancing, it is so profoundly distant from my reality that it makes no sense at all to me, much of the time, or violates deeply held values about the political process and policy substance of what makes our country special and uniquely American. Sometimes I wonder if we wouldn't be better off if Governor Perry got his wish and rid us of the influence that he and his have on our politics.

Then again, Thoma makes one more argument that is neither here nor there. He says that the press doesn't do a good enough job of holding politicians accountable. There is merit to that. Politicans are held accountable for very little of their destructive bad behavior and mischief.

But, I'm not convinced that the press is the most guilty party. It is hard to educate the large share of the voting public that isn't interested in paying attention, and the fact that the nation feels that it can get away with indifference is mostly a testament to a fairly healthy political culture in the formative period of the average voter, rather than being a purely negative indicator. Many of us managed to earn the privilege of not paying much attention because politics has tended to be incrementalist for the last few decades in the United States. Only when elected leaders really screw up in a way that forces a radical change that is contrary to the agreed rules of the political game, as we saw this year in Wisconsin and Minnesota, does the sleeping giant that is the American public wake up and start paying attention. We can be outraged about the process because we have been taught to expect better.

If the U.S. had defaulted on its debt and there had been dire consequences, the American public probably would have woken up and been determined to do something about it in 2012. But, a deal to complex and arcane and unlikely to be adhered to in the long term to make it interesting to the general public was reached, constitutional crisis was avoided, and the public will return to its slumber for a while.

I don't like the way that we are making our sausage and would like to reform it. The Republican balanced budget amendment proposal is a DOA way of addressing the problem. But, there is room for process reform and better ways of holding politicians accountable as well.

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