Friday, July 22, 2011

Kicking the Budgetary Can Down the Road

Imagine that we had a multi-party parliamentary system. Given what we know about the present distribution of preferences about taxing and spending among the electorate, that would probably mean a government with a very tenuous majority on budgetary issues, if not a minority or a coalition government. Under those circumstances, would you expect a sitting government to enact budgetary reforms of the magnitude of the Gang of Six plan or the debt-ceiling deal that Obama and John Boehner are reportedly discussing?

It would be much more likely that any sitting government would call for an election that would arm either it, or the opposition, with a new democratic mandate to address big budgetary issues. That would be kicking the budgetary can down the road, but only for the couple of months it would take to install a new government. Doing anything else, I submit, would be widely perceived as politically illegitimate because it represents a cynical breach of fundamental democratic norms.

No one can summarily call a national election here. Neither Democrats nor Republicans will have a new mandate to act on momentous budgetary issues for nearly 18 months. And, owing to the advantages of incumbency in congressional districts and the fact that 2/3 of the Senate won’t have stood for reelection, whatever mandate either side secures to tackle budgetary issues in November 2012 probably won’t be anywhere near as clear-cut as it would be under a parliamentary system. When you kick the budgetary can down the road here (think of the McConnell-Reid plan for raising the debt ceiling), you have to kick it a lot farther, and reckon with a much higher probability that you’ll have to kick it again when you catch up to it.  Maybe that's unfortunate, but that's our political system.

What does the application of fundamental democratic norms dictate in our circumstances? I can see the argument that we ought to do a big deal now because our political system doesn’t permit us to grapple effectively with budgetary realities in the normal course of political events. But whatever its merits, that's not an argument that upholds any recognizable standard of democratic legitimacy. It’s an argument that democratic accountability is a luxury that we can’t afford.

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