Thursday, December 2, 2010

Stacking the Institutional Deck Against Liberalism

Readers of this blog already know that I’m a glass-is-half-empty kind of liberal. In my darker moods, I worry that Obama’s first two years in office showed that liberalism, as we’ve traditionally thought of it, now exceeds our institutional capacities. As I’ve argued before, now that signature liberal public policies like Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable in their present form and new liberal policies have to be paid for with borrowed public funds, liberal governments need to make much more discriminating policy judgments than ever before. Yet our public-decision-making process is looking far too unwieldy to enable us make the finely calibrated trade-offs required for effective liberal policy-making.

That was painfully obvious watching ObamaCare make its way into law. The bill that emerged with just a few votes to spare from a Democratically controlled House bore at least a casual resemblance to the intricately designed proposals of liberal policy wonks. But no one was eager to claim authorship of what emerged from the Democrat’s filibuster-proof majority in the Senate because it was a parody of liberal health care reform.  That's what happens when every Democratic Senator is positioned to extort concessions by threatening to withhold the sixtieth vote. ObamaCare was only put back into a form that was even arguably worth passing from a liberal standpoint by changing the decision-making rules in the middle of the game by making an unprecedented use of the Senate reconciliation process. And Democrats paid a steep political price for doing it.

The prospects for liberal policy-making aren’t getting any better. According to Richard E. Cohen, the incoming Republican leadership is determined to decentralize the decision-making process in the House to the point where it will be nearly as inhospitable to liberal policy-making as the Senate:
“House Republicans seem intent on blowing up the staid appropriations process when they take power in January — potentially upending the old bulls in both parties who have spent decades building their power over the federal budget. 

“The plans include slicing and dicing appropriations bills into dozens of smaller, bite-size pieces — making it easier to kill or slash unpopular agencies. Other proposals include statutory spending caps, weekly votes on spending cuts and other reforms to ensure spending bills aren’t sneakily passed under special rules.”
Decentralizing House decision-making is a shrewd move by the Republicans politically because it exploits popular revulsion at the way Congress has done its business over the last two years.  It's still shrewder ideologically because it erects yet another institutional barrier to intelligent liberal policy-making.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maybe Obama's horribly bad first two years has been a blessing in disguise. With Republicans now controlling one house and the Democrats the other, we might actually get something done that makes sense. Perhaps the congress may now accomplish things that will help our country rather than destroy it.