02 November 2009

Dysfunctional Government: My Modest Proposal

I live in a state, California, which is paralyzed by probably the worst Legislative Institutional Blockage in American History, thanks in large measure to the preposterous rules requiring 2/3 votes for tax or budget changes. These all date to what I believe is the single worst law ever enacted in the United States, in this case a ballot proposition changing the State's constitution, 1978's Prop. 13. Former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg has proposed a State Constitutional Convention to effectively repeal the worst provisions of this damaging law, and to make other needed changes in the way California is governed. (Incidentally, it is not the 1% ad valorem property tax cap provision which is so harmful; it's the provisions for supermajority requirements for both initiative and legislative votes to raise any taxes, or to pass a budget, which are so crippling).

Which brings me to my actual topic. I regard the dysfunction that has gradually settled over the U.S. Senate, with its effective supermajority to pass any affirmative legislation, and its gross institutional bias in favor of the party of No!, as comparable to the blockage which has paralyzed California. To me, while there are other serious institutional problems in our government, this one is so bad, and so harmful, that it alone justifies the ultimate solution which I have come to believe is necessary. And since this solution is sweeping and all-encompassing, it would give our generation of Americans the opportunity to make historic reforms to our entire system of government, for the benefit of all Americans.

Our country is being gravely harmed by the inability, despite a strong majority on all levels, to pass meaningful reform legislation that actually works. I offer the mess that is the drawn-out process for enacting Health Care Reform, as proof by example. After months and months, and countless hours of stupid debate and nonsensical media ranting and raving, mostly about side-issues and non-issues (as in, lies about what the bills would do), it looks like the entire effort will result in a pitiful, not-even half measure. Dennis Kucinich decried, Is this the best we can do? Because if it is, it isn't good enough. 

He's right, of course. It isn't nearly good enough. And not because the majority of Americans don't support robust and efficient reform. They do, and the polls prove it. It's because of the institutional dysfunction, primarily in the Senate, which makes it easy to block any action, but requires near impossible majorities to accomplish anything. Other countries don't have this problem. In most European countries, where the majority votes for something, it becomes law. A party that can only muster 20 or 30% to call themselves adherents could never block reform. But here, they can, because they can effectively prevent the Senate from acting on legislation.

This has been played out over and over, as instead of rational and efficient legislation, we end up with stupid, ineffective, inefficient, and counter-productive government on every level. No Child Left Behind, but no funding. Medicare Prescription Drug Reform, but no ability to negotiate prices, and one of the most confusing and irrational schemes ever for actually providing the benefit (the "donut hole.") Not to mention the institutional bias that makes ridiculously wasteful military industrial spending virtually impossible to oppose, due to the power of regional and corporate interests to impose their priorities, regardless of what the electorate wants or thinks. Next on the Agenda? Watered down and ineffective financial re-regulation, and inadequate and ineffective Climate Change Legislation. Count on it. If anything is passed in either area, it will not be enough, will not be rational or efficient, and will not reflect the demonstrable will of the electorate.

Examples of the essentially dysfunctional nature of the Legislative Branch in general, and the Senate in particular, are virtually endless. 

My Modest Proposal?

I believe the only way around this historic paralysis is to finally do what Thomas Jefferson assumed we would do once in every generation or so: we must revise the Constitution by holding, for only the second time in our history, a National Constitutional Convention. 

I think it's safe to conclude that a proposed constitutional amendment to change the way the Senate is constituted, and change its rules by Constitutional provision, could never get the support of 3/4 of the State Legislatures required to enact a constitutional amendment. They would be too determined to preserve the undue influence they now have.

But maybe, just maybe, as the harm to our economy, our ability to effectively provide the kinds of services that most people in the world regard as the very purpose of government, and our standing in the world, all deteriorate progressively, it will become possible to prevail in a political movement for a National Constitutional Convention.

I used to be opposed to any such notion, thinking the tripartite government, with its various checks and balances, that our 18th century forbears created, was so valuable, and so protective of our rights, that we could not risk losing it. But it seems to me, that system has largely failed. Our rights are not being preserved. The Bush administration effectively abrogated many of them, and even the Obama administration has been slow to see to their robust restoration. Moreover, the system just doesn't work. Look at the way health care has gone: it's a total mess, despite strong support from a large majority in almost every state.

Of course, it's risky. Special interests control politics very effectively in this country, and we could, one might argue, end up with a sort of fictitious democracy, with oligarchy institutionalized once and for all. But I have enough faith in the force of the will of the people, who will demand fairness and functionality, to believe that wouldn't happen. And I have come to believe that our system of government, our military/industrial/Congressional complex, as Dwight Eisenhower warned, and in particular the institutional flaws that make it possible, are in fact so very bad, that whatever emerges from a full scale Constitutional Convention is unlikely to be worse. The reality is that we have oligarchy now, with government by and large bought and paid for by special interests.

I think it's possible to raise the consciousness of the people, so to speak, till they demand that the system of government itself be changed, so that the will of the people is more effectively reflected in the output of, in particular, the Legislature, and so that such dangerous concepts as Dick Cheney's theory of a "unitary executive" are disposed of once and for all. Moreover, many of the rights and principles that have evolved since 1789 as essential elements of the "American Way," but which are not explicit in the Constitution, could be made so. Further, some of the more dubious and harmful elements of our political system, many of them derived from questionable judicial precedents, such as the concept that Corporations are persons without particular responsibilities to act in the public service, could be changed to make our whole political/economic system work more effectively to not only create prosperity for all, but with essential fairness and equity as hallmarks of the law on all levels.

I will post further on this topic as time goes on. 

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