Too Many Chiefs

Sure, he’s a sellout. But Joe Lieberman is a product of an over-complicated American political system that makes voters just another special interest.

In one fell swoop, Joe Lieberman, once Democratic candidate for vice president, then neocon stoolie, and now so-called “moderate” independent senator from Connecticut, both put the Democratic health proposal’s essential public option in doubt and proved James Madison wrong.

What a sellout. After Lieberman announced he would join a Republican filibuster against any health reform bill that included a public insurance option, Norman Lear called him a backpfeifengesicht, or a person whose face should be slapped, "Because the smirking arrogance oozing from that face is all the assurance you need that whatever the man is thinking and doing cannot be good for you, your children, your friends, your children’s friends, or anyone else you care about." Stephen Colbert’s take-down was particularly hostile, noting that Lieberman changed face after 10 years of support for health reform despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of his constituents supported the public option:

Joe’s party is Connecticut for Lieberman, not Lieberman for Connecticut. Big difference. You see, Joe is a true independent: He’s independent of parties, he’s independent of voters. So I say stick to your principles Joe. And as soon as you can, let us know what those are.

Harsh and deserved. But this isn’t just Joe’s story. It’s Max’s, and Olympia’s, and Arlen’s and Kent’s—all senators who have both baffled analysts and stood in the way of progress on health care in one way or another for the simple, galling reason that they can. It’s the story of Founding Father Madison’s Federalist ideas gone wild, creating a government so complicated that politics has become the exclusive sport of the wily and the well-funded, the common good be damned. And since every sport has its losers, I might as well mention the also-rans: Accountability and you.

In defense of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Senate isn’t an easy thing to run. Julian E. Zelizer writes in The Politico that over the years, the filibuster has become the partisan weapon of choice, bringing the legislative mechanism to a screeching halt more and more frequently. And here’s a paradox for you: Zelizer says there is less party discipline than before, but also fewer members who are willing to cross party lines to create productive compromises. The result is endless deadlock.

And that’s just one half of Congress. The Senate is the second house, created 222 years ago as a compromise between larger, slave-owning states who would have dominated an evenly representative body, and smaller, free states fearing the spread of slavery. But the compromise has now turned on its head: Senators from small, overwhelmingly white, conservative states like Iowa, Montana, and North Dakota can dominate key committees at the expense of diverse, country-size California, New York and Texas. One body, the Senate, has an arbitrary veto over the decisions of the far more representative House—and to no productive end.


Foxes, meet hen house

No one should be surprised at this, since, in a way, it was all by design. Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 10 that a larger, representative government for larger groups of people would help protect individual liberties from factions that oppose the common good for their own private gains. (By bigger government, I don’t mean more government spending, but more politicians.) The reasoning goes that the bigger the country, the more factions there are, and so the less chance any one faction dominates. The argument made sense in the context of a nascent democratic government vulnerable to both foreign and domestic threats and the possibility that, had Washington’s intentions been less pure, America would no longer have been a republic; they were reinforced by the chaos of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.

I’ve heard Madison’s argument extended, particularly by liberals in the Bush era, into a warped version of the case for checks and balances and separation of powers: We should make it hard to make big changes, it goes, because we should have a healthy distrust of government. The more oversight, the better. If Bush had his way, habeas corpus would be null and void, thrown in to the same heap as posse comitatus; the executive would have complete power over foreign policy decisions, utterly bypassing Congress; radical justices would be appointed to the Supreme Court; and let’s not even think about further financial deregulation and corporate welfare.

And yet, all those things did, in fact, come to pass in the most intricate, most unwieldy national democratic government in the world. Put aside the fact that government should be structured to both protect individual liberties and provide for the common good. (I’m not a Madison scholar, but while he did write about common national defense issues, I don’t imagine he talked much about pandemic preparedness, or environmental disasters, or consumer protection.) The idea that more oversight is good and less oversight is bad doesn’t tell us who might be doing the overseeing, who gets to choose those people, and what the government’s supervisors do with that power. For what this argument proposes is that we should allow the foxes to guard the hen house, trusting blindly that different foxes might have opposing ideas about what to do with the hens, and thus cancel out each other’s voraciousness.


Worse Than Deadlock

The standard critique of Madison is along the lines of the work of historian Garry Wills. In his book “Explaining America,” Wills wrote that Madison’s idea of expansive government institutions would only slow the legislative process to a halt and empower particular minorities:

Minorities can make use of dispersed and staggered governmental machinery to clog, delay, slow down, hamper, and obstruct the majority. ... What Madison prevents is not faction, but action. What he protects is not the common good but delay as such.

All this has led to a government that is less responsive to crises, whether it be climate change or Nazi aggression in Europe, Digby writes. But the problem is worse than an inert government. It’s a government that is no longer, in any way, shape or form, by or for the people.

Consider a pure unicameral parliamentary democracy. In this imaginary country, what parliament says, goes, except when voters don’t like it or the supreme court finds it unconstitutional. Cabinet members are appointed by the prime minister and must be members of parliament. There are robust restrictions on campaign finances, particularly on donations from corporations. Generally, when the government does something voters don’t like, polls go down, and the government reacts by changing policy or changing cabinet to avoid a bad election. Members or parliament are bound primarily by two powers: The party leader, who can dole out punishment and reward to keep the party acting as one, and voters. Committees are either formalisms or investigatory, but almost never crucial in deciding a vote. The questions for voters are simple: Do you like your member of parliament? And do you like the prevailing government? There is only one powerful ballot to register a constituent’s choices.

And now consider the United States. The House has more or less reached a consensus on a bill and will vote on it shortly. But in the Senate, legislation has been watered down and the process dragged out over months, particularly in the finance committee. The vote in the Senate is close, and although the substantial argument against the public option is pretty baffling, the insurance companies always seem to find their champions, even from states where the public option is popular. In the Senate, where legislators are rewarded for throwing tantrums, so-called moderates have an opportunity to increase their profile by dangling the public option in front of progressive legislators and ostensibly becoming swing voters. It’s politicians playing against other politicians, the voters be damned, because the voters might well take out their frustration on someone else—the president, for example, or a member of the House of Representatives. Who follows Senate politics that closely anyways?

Worse, more opportunities for brazen political entrepreneurs mean more efficient lobbies. Can you guess which member of Congress got the most campaign money from the health insurance lobby? Why, it’s Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus. It’s easier for not only politicians but moneyed interests to game the system for private reward. It’s a contest of power, politicians vs. politicians, sponsored by the insurance and financial services lobbies. And nowhere in any of this scheming is the consideration of the public good, although members of Congress, despite a 95%+ incumbency rate, might worry about voters on occasion.

I am certainly not saying that a pure unicameral parliamentary democracy would be perfect, free of selfish politicians and the influence of corporate lobbying. What I am saying is that it is worse to have a government designed by those who were paranoid about the possibility of a spontaneous popular uprising that would install a king at the seat of government, worse to live in a society where the people are just another faction to be feared and contained. In that country, the people’s “faction” faces enemies on all sides: corporate interests, politicians, market forces, and the government itself.

I prefer a vision of government where people’s choices are trusted, in both the market and in government, because everyday citizens aren’t as unreasonable and unprincipled as Madison might have feared. The average Joe is no Joe Lieberman. End.


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Created: 05.12.04 | Last Updated: 10.03.03 | RSS | Under Creative Commons Licence | About Whis Website