An antidote for our poisoned politics

An antidote for our poisoned politics
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An intriguing concordance has emerged on the urgency of stopping hyper-partisan politics. Republican columnist David Brooks wrote on Jan. 2 of the peril that comes from treating fellow citizens as enemies and the imperative to instead appeal to “our common humanity.” The next day, Democratic columnist William Galston  wrote that Congress should take a step in that direction by “focusing on issues that can bring the country together” such as by pairing “fair treatment for the Dreamers with robust border security.” Another six days later, congressional leaders from both parties and President TrumpDonald John TrumpAustralia recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli capital, won't move embassy Mulvaney will stay on as White House budget chief Trump touts ruling against ObamaCare: ‘Mitch and Nancy’ should pass new health-care law MORE agreed to try to find common ground on immigration. Then, the “shithole” hit the fan.

Yet, even if we had another president, finding common ground on most issues would be far easier said than done. A key reason: Congress changed the ground rules of legislation in a way that encourages members of Congress and presidents to take extreme positions. That’s poison. To stop the hyper-partisanship, Congress must adopt less divisive ground rules. 

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Under the old ground rules, to confer benefits on some people, majorities in the House and Senate had to openly take responsibility for the resulting burdens on other people. So, for example, in establishing Social Security in 1935, Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt imposed taxes fully sufficient to fund the long-term cost of the benefits then promised. The clear responsibility of elected officials sparked open debate, thereby educating them and their constituents about who would bear what burdens.

 

In contrast, under the new ground rules, politicians evade blame for the burdens needed to produce the benefits for which they take credit. So, in 1972, Congress and President Nixon increased Social Security benefits without imposing taxes sufficient to pay the long-term cost. That shifted blame for the additional taxes to future Congresses and presidents and no one knew on whom those taxes would fall. Not only in spending, but in every other important aspect of legislation, Congress has developed ways to evade blame. 

The new ground rules have changed incentives in legislating. Before, to win passage in the House and Senate, sponsors designed bills to maximize benefits and minimize burdens for constituents. Now, to ease passage, they design bills to maximize credit and minimize blame for legislators.

Before, to win passage despite the burdens being in plain view, sponsors designed bills so that legislators could explain to constituents, especially in swing constituencies, why the allocation of benefits and burdens was fair. Now, with the burdens shrouded in uncertainty, fairness is a lesser concern.

As a result, politicians can advocate maximum gratification for their party’s base. This frees them to take the extreme positions that give them more coverage from irate media outlets such as Fox News or MSNBC, more money from ideological deep-pocket donors, and surer support from the party base. There is little latitude here for appealing to our common humanity and great latitude to heap scorn on the other party. No wonder there are now few centrists in Congress.

The decline in centrist legislators is especially remarkable because we still have many legislative districts and states that either party can win in House, Senate, and presidential elections. Indeed, as “Unstable Majorities” author Morris Fiorina notes, control of Congress and the White House has swung between the parties far more frequently in recent decades than in the past.

The tendency of the electorate to put someone different in charge — mostly recently, the especially different Trump — is an understandable reaction to a government that we have come to distrust. Under the old ground rules that lasted from the first Congresses through the early 1960s, voters could generally accept the system as fair. win some; lose some.

So, Americans were once proud that their government was accountable to them. That is why, at Gettysburg, President Lincoln could celebrate “government of the people, by the people, for the people” as an established fact rather than a Fourth of July aspiration. Even in the early 1960s, four-fifths of voters trusted Washington to do “the right thing.” In contrast, under both President Obama and Trump, only one-fifth of voters have such trust.

We distrust our government for good reason. The new ground rules produce unstable majorities, programs designed to make officials look good rather than serve us, and decisions taken without the support of centrist legislators. All this makes government erratic. For example, Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act without Republican support, Republicans are dismantling it piecemeal without Democratic support, the Democrats will reverse course yet again when they next take control, and so on. Neither government nor the private sector can work well with such frequent changes in course.                

So, while the parties argue over where the ship of state should sail to, it lacks a reliable rudder. To put the ship on a steady course, we need legislative ground rules that once again make politicians accountable. My proposed Honest Deal Act offers one way to do that.              

Responsibility for consequences will saddle legislators and presidents with tough choices, but shouldering such responsibility is their job under the Constitution. If some politicians lead us to ground rules that restore accountability and temper partisanship, they will earn the enduring gratitude of the nation.

David Schoenbrod is a professor at New York Law School. He is also the author of “DC Confidential: Inside the Five Tricks of Washington” (2017).