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October 02, 2013 4:49 PM The Struggle For Accountable Government

By Ed Kilgore

Today’s deep dive article is by Wonkblog’s Dylan Matthews, wherein he makes the case that the government shutdown is James Madison’s fault. No kidding.

But I’m less interested in Matthews’ tracing of congressional/executive gridlock to Federalist #51, and more interested in his more general argument that systems featuring a separation of executive and legislative powers and thus the strong possibility of divided government don’t tend to work well absent sprawling non-ideological political parties.

Cases like the current shutdown are exactly why highly divided societies like ours end up endangered by presidential systems. There is an inherent conflict between the president’s and the Senate’s claims to popular legitimacy and the House’s, and because of the Constitution’s design, none of those bodies has formal supremacy over the others.
Article I doesn’t have “tie-breakers” in case we’re in danger of shutting down the government or defaulting on our debts. If Congress and the president can’t agree on spending or on a debt level, then the fallback option is that we don’t have a government and we turn treasuries into junk bonds.
The obvious question here is why, if America’s form of government is so precarious, it’s worked so well for so long. The answer is that America’s party system has been unusually weak and diffuse. Through much of the 20th Century, both the Democratic and Republican parties provided a home to both liberals and conservatives. Since the parties didn’t agree internally it was easier for them to come to a deal and much, much harder for them to threaten brinksmanship. The Republican Party of the 1960s wouldn’t be threatening a default over Obamacare because many of them would’ve voted for Obamacare — just as they voted for Medicare.

I would note in passing that those non-ideological parties were also the reason America was so late to enact the laws partially made possible by bipartisanship (but also a large Democratic supermajority) in the early 1960s, and tolerated first slavery and then Jim Crow for so long. There are worse things than polarization.

I find Matthews’ argument about accountability more persuasive:

If voters expect their leaders to deliver favorable economic outcomes, then those leaders should actually be able to control favorable economic outcomes. That’s how the United Kingdom works. David Cameron and George Osborne have complete control over the government’s fiscal policy lever, through the coalition’s total control over the budget and tax rates, and have a great deal of control over monetary policy through their ability to appoint the governor of the Bank of England and members of the Monetary Policy Committee without a U.S.-style confirmation conference. Leaders before 1998, when the Bank became formally independent of political control, had even more power.
So when Britons go to the polls and judge Cameron and Osborne (and their Liberal Democrat coalition-mates) on their economic management, they’ll be holding accountable the people who are in fact responsible for their economic situation.
That doesn’t happen in the United States. In 2010 the economy was garbage, so, as political science would predict, the American people punished the party in power, the Democrats.
But the diffusion of power throughout the political system made it impossible to know for sure who was responsible for the state of the economy. Maybe it was the fault of Susan Collins and other moderate senators who used filibuster threats to cut the stimulus. Maybe it was the fault of the rest of the Republican caucus for imposing a 60-vote threshold for stimulus and not cooperating. Maybe it was the Bush-appointed Federal Open Market Committee’s fault for not loosening rates in 2007 and 2008.

This diffusion of power works prospectively, too: divided government makes any sort of coherent long-range economic policy very difficult, at least at a time when the two major parties hold to entirely incompatible theories of how to make the economy work.

To the extent that democracy depends on accountable government, long periods of divided government represent a large problem—as large as the difficulty we have in measuring government’s effectiveness (a problem WaMo has focused on heavily for decades now). And the more we know that institutional factors (the wildly unrepresentative nature of the Senate and to a lesser extent even the House) produce divided government rather than some invisible hand of the people restraining either party from supremacy or excess, the more its persistence seems irrational and dangerous.

Personally, I’ve reached a place where I would prefer a stretch of undivided control of government—subject to judicial monitoring, of course—by either party than perpetual divided government that frustrates conscious policy-making and perpetuates an extraordinary number of myths—such as the belief that Americans can have all the benefits of a modern welfare state without any of the costs or any of the solidarity a modern welfare state requires. If it were possible to experiment with a parliamentary system, I’d be all for it. But barring realization of that fantasy, we ought all to encourage political parties and political mechanisms that make it possible to test policies and ideologies in the laboratories of real life, and draw the appropriate conclusions.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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