Make democracy real again

Make democracy real again
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More harmful to the nation than any crime that is likely to be alleged in the impeachment hearings is that all the attention to President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Vulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Trump appears to set personal record for tweets in a day MORE has eclipsed the important problem that our democracy is broken and rightly distrusted by the people. The breakdown and distrust were essential to his getting elected and, unless cured, are likely to bring more disruptive presidents in the future, whether from the right or the left.

One symptom of the breakdown is that government cannot decisively resolve key policy issues. Failure to build centrist support for decisions made it easy for Trump to nix the Paris climate accord, and would make it easy for Democrats, if they take power in the next election, to undo the Republican tax cuts. Regardless of whose policies are better, such zig zags jar expectations far more than the gentler changes in the course of a strong democracy. A key cause of the instability is that our government has lost the trust of the people. While nearly three-fourth of voters in 1958 trusted the federal government to do the right thing “most of the time,” only about one-fifth of voters did in 2015, the year before Trump was elected. This year, under Trump, trust is a bit lower still.

Back in the days of trust, President Kennedy and President Johnson both ran and won as experienced Washington insiders capable of getting government to accomplish more. With growing distrust, however, voters have tended to elect leaders who vow to upend Washington. Many new candidates ran as outsiders, including the peanut farmer turned governor Jimmy Carter, the Hollywood actor turned governor Ronald Reagan, the “man from hope” turned governor Bill Clinton, the Texan businessman turned governor George Bush, the Chicago community organizer turned senator Barack Obama, and the New York real estate tycoon turned reality television star Donald Trump, who had the additional political advantage of running against consummate insider Hillary Clinton.

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Trust in Washington fell during a half century in which elected officials developed new ways of drafting laws and spending programs that have allowed them to make popular promises yet shift blame for the unpopular consequences. When establishing Social Security in 1935, they not only took credit for pensions but also shouldered the blame for imposing taxes sufficient to finance them. In contrast, in 1972, the incumbents took credit for increasing the pensions but did not impose taxes sufficient to pay for the hikes and shifted blame to their successors in office.

Similarly, during the 1970s, lawmakers took credit for creating judicially enforceable rights to a healthy environment but structured the statutes so that the blame for the burdens needed to fulfill the rights and the failure to do so would fall on federal agencies and the states. Across a whole range of government operations, the incumbents have managed to shift blame for unpopular consequences to their successors, agencies, the states, and the president. Voters sense that they are being cheated of vital information but do not quite know by whom or how.

The cheating exacerbates other causes of distrust in Washington. Big campaign contributions can buy bigger favors when elected officials can hide their unpopular consequences. The same goes for favors bought with reelection assistance from unions, the National Rifle Association, and other advocacy organizations. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiVulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Photographer leaves Judiciary hearing after being accused of taking photos of member notes Overnight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — House passes sweeping Pelosi bill to lower drug prices | Senate confirms Trump FDA pick | Trump officials approve Medicaid work requirements in South Carolina MORE in 2006 and Donald Trump in 2016 each promised to “drain the swamp.” However, neither of them has addressed the cheating that keeps the fetid water in Washington.

Instead, Trump tried to hide the cost of his tax cuts by claiming that they would pay for themselves through boosting investment. Yet a recent study by the International Monetary Fund found that the tax cuts did little to increase investment in the long term. The Democrats are no better. They promised regulatory protection but shifted to agencies the blame for the costs. Similarly, Trump promised lower regulatory burdens in an executive order but shifted to agencies blame for less regulatory protection.

Getting the right mix of policies is of course critical. But in a democracy, the choice should be made by elected officials who are responsible to their constituents. Instead, the cheating befuddles voters and makes government unstable. Congress should pass a statute to establish new legislative procedures that would force roll call votes on the most important hard choices between regulatory protection and regulatory burdens, the most important federal mandates that penalize states and localities for failing to do the federal bidding, and putting our troops into combat. Such votes would make politicians personally responsible for both the unpopular and popular consequences of their choices.

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Finally, the statute should order the Congressional Budget Office to inform voters of the costs of spending increases and tax cuts. It is nonpartisan and has a reputation for speaking truth to power. That is why so many incumbents are leery of it. It should be ordered to mail voters an estimate of the annual cost to the average family of the tax increases or spending cuts needed to keep the debt from growing faster than the economy, how much Congress has changed that cost, and how much greater the cost will be if Congress continues to kick the can down the road.

Candidates who run for elected office on a credible platform of making democracy real again would appeal to voters who want a government of, by, and for the people rather than of, by, and for the swamp.

David Schoenbrod is a trustee professor with New York Law School and is the author of “District Confidential: Inside the Five Tricks of Washington.”