Monday, July 11, 2011

Dodging Another Undemocratic Bullet

So the big debt-ceiling deal, $4 trillion in spending cuts (including entitlement cuts) for $1 trillion in new tax revenues, isn’t going to happen.  If you hadn't heard, John Boehner walked away from the bargaining table he’d been sharing with Obama over the weekend. The breeze you're feeling is doctrinaire liberals and conservatives emitting a sigh a relief:  liberals because they feared Obama was about to sell them out yet again, and conservatives because they thought Obama was setting a political trap for Boehner. You can decide for yourself whether to subscribe to either of those cynical narratives. If you ask me, there’s more than a little truth to both of them.

I’m more interested, however, in a third narrative that’s circulating among people who think of themselves as being above mere ideology. On this view, a golden opportunity to get on with the necessary work of reforming entitlements and getting the deficit under control has been frittered away.  The centrifugal forces generated by rapacious ideologues in the party bases overwhelmed the centripetal force that Obama and Boehner were trying to generate through high-minded statesmanship.

Take, for example, Carl Hulse’s description of Boehner and Obama’s lofty intentions in today’s New York Times (my emphasis):
“At a private meeting about deficit reduction at the White House last week, Speaker John A. Boehner told his fellow Congressional leaders and President Obama that he did not spend 20 years working his way up to the top job on Capitol Hill just for the cachet of the title — he wanted to accomplish something big.

“So [Boehner] and the president pursued an ambitious plan that would have reduced spending by as much as $4 trillion over 10 years. It was a transformative proposal, with the potential to improve the ugly deficit picture by shrinking the size of government, overhauling the tax code and instituting consensus changes to shore up Medicare and even Social Security. It was a once-in-a-decade opening.”
What notions of “statesmanship” and “responsible governance” are animating this account of what Boehner and Obama were up to? It’s hard to read Hulse and not come away with the idea that the surest sign of an elected politician’s statesmanship and civic responsibility is his having the fortitude to say no to his political base, even—indeed especially— if that means betraying the campaign promises that got him elected. That’s why Hulse is brimming with admiration for Boehner’s and Obama’s mutual readiness to retire behind closed doors so that they could remake the welfare state and the tax code to their own specifications without annoying constituents looking over their shoulder. And remember, when they wrapped up their orgy of statesmanship, they planned to present the voters’ representatives with a fait accompli that had to be ratified mechanically before August 2 to avert a fiscal Armageddon.

I suppose that, if we set our minds to it, we could come up with an idea of “statesmanship” on the part of elected politicians that’s more hostile to any recognizable concept of “democratic legitimacy.”  But it wouldn’t be easy. What passes for public deliberation in the halls of Congress is disheartening enough from a democratic standpoint. Think about how Congress and the White House deliberated over health care reform for a full year, preempting nearly every other domestic issue, before passing a 2,000 page bill the material contents of which were largely unknown to legislators voting on it, and leaving it to executive branch bureaucrats to fill in all the highly material blanks out of public view. Until then, it had never occurred to me that democratic deliberation could manage to be interminable, rash and inconclusive at one and the same time.

Well now the people lamenting the inability of Obama and Boehner to do a grand debt-ceiling deal have apparently decided that the paraphernalia of democratic decision-making—you know, stuff like congressionally enacted budgets and congressional hearings—is too cumbersome.  No big deal, we're only talking about restructuring the welfare state and the tax code. 

Say what you will about the political process that gave us health care reform, but at least voters knew who was responsible for it well-enough to reward them or call them to account in the next election. The grand debt-ceiling deal contemplated by Obama and Boehner was designed not only to make momentous snap decisions by circumventing any semblance of public deliberation, but to blur the lines of political accountability beyond recognition.

Maybe I'm naïve, but I would have thought that the basic shape of the welfare state and the tax code is important enough to be the subject-matter of prolonged public debate and a democratic election or two.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The budget is very well going to be the subject matter of a democratic election. It's going to be in 2012 and, if Republicans get their messaging right, Obama is going to be in big trouble over this. It seems to me that it's the president's responsibility to work with Congress, in an open way, to get a budget for the US government.

Obama is not doing what a president should be doing and it's appalling.

I suspect there will be a post mortem when the whole thing gets done and credit and blame will be assigned depending on who is speaking.