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Blame government for political gridlock? Try looking closer to home

Citizens too have a role in fixing things Gary Cameron/Reuters

Now that Capitol Hill has turned red, the debate has turned to whether this will increase gridlock or not.

Certainly from the perspective of the President it will. He can expect vastly more difficulty doing those things, in particular, that depended on the lone scrutiny of the Senate, such as confirming judicial appointees.

From the Republicans’ perspective there may be a reduction in gridlock. The impediments to the implementation of their policy agenda have been reduced – albeit not wholly eliminated thanks to the power of the presidential veto.

As for the perspective of We the People, it seems that we are unable to make a consistent collective decision about whose party program we want to enact into law. After all, we – our divided and polarized society – just elected all these Republican senators. We have only ourselves to blame if they just make matters worse.

And perhaps those of us on the left, who would be expected to support the president and bemoan the Republican Senate, would prefer a little bit more gridlock. Two days after the midterm elections a one-page story in the Wall Street Journal announced that President Obama and Senator McConnell expected to be able to work together on at least one thing: the reauthorization of more military force in the Middle East.

Yet politically engaged citizens - from both sides of the partisan fence - often bemoan gridlock in the American government. The political system, as they see it, simply makes it too hard to get anything done.

One gridlock narrative

Consider the outlook for a left-leaning advocate of health care reform. The Democrats first tried to do something about this back in the Clinton administration, but were rebuffed by Republicans in Congress.

Then, President Obama managed to enact the Affordable Care Act, but was forced by opposition to include a number of compromises that undermined the goal of making health care accessible to all Americans.

First, single-payer health care was off the table. This meant government could not act as the sole primary insurer, as is the case in so many of our other liberal democracies such as Canada and the UK.

Shortly thereafter the “public option,” a provision that could have allowed citizens to select a government insurer in competition with private insurers, was also dropped.

Even when the President managed to push the bill, limping and bleeding from countless wounds, through Congress, there was one branch of the federal government that had not yet had a crack at it. Accordingly, opponents of the legislation immediately started filing lawsuit after lawsuit.

First, they challenged the individual mandate, the requirement that people actually get health insurance. This aspect of the policy was designed to eliminate an economic problem called “adverse selection,” which is what happens when only the sickest and most expensive to insure actually buy policies.

Individual mandate was attacked on the grounds that the federal government lacked the authority to make people buy health insurance. The challengers lost that one, if barely, thanks to a surprise vote by Republican-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts.

The bill was less lucky in a challenge brought in the same case against the Medicaid expansion, which provided states with funding to expand health coverage for the poor in exchange for requiring them to do so.

The Supreme Court, in a party-line vote, held that Congress lacked the authority to do that, permitting states to refuse the money and the expansion and undermining the administration’s attempt to create a uniform national system of health care access.

Next they went after the employer requirements, and we now have yet another party-line Supreme Court ruling that it violates the religious liberty of a crafting conglomerate named Hobby Lobby to require it to pay the premiums for an insurance plan that allows the women they employ to acquire contraception.

To our hypothetical left-leaning health care activist, all this might look like an indictment of our system of government. Political scientists speak of “veto points”, the places in our policymaking structure at which an initiative can be brought to a screeching halt.

And the US Constitution does have rather a lot of them, located everywhere from Congressional committees to the Oval Office, the Supreme Court, and the bureaucracy.

Not always greener in other political systems

By contrast, parliamentary systems like those of the UK, in which the legislative and executive powers are controlled by the same party, seem to supply much more policy flexibility. Our government seems to be too gridlocked to actually pass needed reforms.

Some, however, disagree with this diagnosis. They point out, for example, that Democrats in Congress did as much as the Republicans did to kill the Clinton healthcare bill.

European parliamentary systems are also plagued by gridlock, particularly in multi-party states where no party or coalition can get a working majority, as happened, for example, last spring in Italy. Typically in parliamentary systems this gets resolved by the blunt instrument of holding a new election.

The culprit of our current gridlock, on this account, is not the structure of our government but the polarization of our ideologies.

Moreover, the American government seems to have produced a number of staggeringly ambitious policy initiatives through its history: consider the Louisiana Purchase, the New Deal, the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror – to say nothing of the numerous actual wars we’ve waged over the centuries.

Too much government?

And for all those who decry the way that gridlock keeps the government from getting anything done, there seem to be just as many who decry the rise of uncontrollable government power.

For example, many are of the opinion that the executive branch has arrogated excessive power to itself and located it in democratically unaccountable agencies which do everything from pervasive industrial regulation to operating secret domestic spying programs.

What all this suggests is that government is a double-edged sword. There is, doubtless, a bare minimum of government capacity that a state needs to survive.

A state that so badly lacks the tools of governing that it cannot provide basic public goods like military defense, or a rudimentary legal system, to its people is not long for this earth – as Francis Fukuyama was recently quoted as suggesting with respect to ISIS.

The Framers of the US Constitution famously thought that the initial Articles of Confederation drafted in Philadelphia in 1776-7 deprived the government of those minimum capacities through, for example, its failure to make any provision for federal taxation.

Beyond that minimum, we can tinker with the structure and procedure of government, and, in doing so, either increase its capacity to enact good things (like laws to improve public access to health care), but only at the price of also increasing its capacity to enact bad things (like regulations to create secret “no-fly” lists and a pariah-class of American travelers).

Time for a bit of self-criticism

It seems to me that the real answer to both gridlock and governmental self-aggrandization lies in the relationship between the people and their state. For both of those problems are, in part, what economists call “principal-agent problems” – only if the people are unable, or unwilling, to adequately control their state will it be able to enact bad laws and unable to enact good ones.

The right institutional prescription for our government, then, is for structures to promote greater democratic accountability, including structures to give individual voices a real chance of making a political difference.

Proposals being floated around academia, such as for various kinds of citizen juries selected to deliberate on public policy, seem promising in this respect.

Of course, greater democratic accountability only works if the people are both competent and well-disposed. Americans must learn how to distinguish good policies from bad, and must develop the virtuous dispositions necessary to, for example, protect minority rights and resist the urge to hysterical scapegoating of the sort that was directed against Muslims after 9-11.

We must learn to critically evaluate the arguments of our media and our leaders, and to enter politics with open-mindedness rather than blind ideological affiliation.

The government can help in these tasks, of course, such as through education, but the point remains: reforms to the government will do us no good unless they also come paired with reforms to ourselves.

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