Thursday, August 11, 2011

Is System Reboot Needed?


I am sympathetic to Ezra’s argument that structure of American Politics and State is essentially hindering our ability to make any progress. The single most consequential factory is the decision of Mitch McConnell to run GOP as ‘parliamentary opposition party’ in Senate - meaning opposing anything which Obama and Dems propose. After becoming the House Speaker Boehner has adopted the same strategy in House too. The mechanism used by McConnell is ‘filibuster’ and abuse of that parliamentary manoeuvre is well known by now.

But if one thinks further, there are number of issues which come to mind if ever we want American System to work like parliamentary majorities - you get the mandate, you run with it and in the next election voters pass a judgement on your governance. UK system is template here but equally worthy templates are the German way, Indian System and interestingly Turkish Democracy too in Erdogon Era.

House in Congress clearly works like that. What is better, House gets re-elected every two years and in that sense is most ‘sensitive chamber’ to public opinion compared to all other parliamentary modes. But most of other political systems are practically unicameral. In India Rajya Sabha has rendered itself totally useless. Apart from bringing unelected politicians in government it has no use. Compared to that Senate in USA is practically equal power chamber with more emphasis on Foreign Policy and checks on Executive Power. During Bush-Singh Nuclear Accord, Indians bemoaned that Union Cabinet could simply approve terms of the accord without bringing it to Loksabha. Indira Gandhi famously ran Foreign Policy without any parliamentary approval.

George Bush did the same for Iraq war is true. But you can never forget 70+ senators across both parties backed that policy. Question is why? Basically because ‘politically’ it was impossible for Congress to go against the wind Bush had then. It works other way too - GOP House balked at Bush plan of Social Security privatization and GOP joined Dems in stopping that initiative despite the thumping victory Bush got in 2004. What this means is - majorities do not matter in American Politics, but it is ‘politics’ or ‘backing of people’s will’ for a particular issue; that matters. The flip side of this is, if a leader (invariable it is in President in most cases except when you have true legislative giants like Tip O’Neill in House and LBJ in Senate) wants something to be done, the leader has to bring some reasonable votes of opposing party. That is the dreaded word - bipartisan support.

Clearly failure in case of Obama is inability to bring in at least some members of GOP on board for his policy agenda. Even before McConnell started the ‘total opposition’ approach; it was the lack of GOP participation in health care reform and stimulus which sowed the seeds of destruction. Instead of a single big bang Health Care Reform bill, Obama could have gone for series of health care reform bills so that at least few of those had GOP buy-in.
Interestingly ‘bi-partisan’ support does not have to come by being completely conciliatory all the time. Making a firm stand and by that increasing credibility with Public while taking ‘fights on certain issues’; it is all part of the process to make oneself stronger in other bi-partisan resolutions. Obama is simply failing in this respect as there is no visible fight which can project his ‘resolute leadership’ to public.

I suppose one can adopt FDR or Truman approach of ‘bull by horns with Congress’. That model is possible too. This means, so long as the leader is able to shape public opinion towards his/her policy positions; results to American Public are perfectly possible in the current American System. Problem is Leadership, not the System.

Besides, if we were to make our system more like parliamentary mechanism, what would it mean: reduce power of Senate? How can that be different than ‘unicameralism’? Are we going to get all Senators elected at the same time instead of the current staggered schedule? Without staggered time table, how do we ensure that a richer mix of public will is expressed in a chamber of Congress? It is true that, such a complex rhythm of public will sets the bar higher for any particular policy proposal to be passed. But if leadership is adept and capable, the outcome is far more lasting and entrenched.

And finally how can you tamper Congressional powers without impacting executive powers? ‘Executive as Commander-in-chief’ is at the heart of American System and that is why it is the most effective ‘military power’ in human history. That is how American State got founded in the first place when George Washington delivered the crucial victories as commander-in-chief. Any change in the current system would alter that unique power with grave consequences.

Bottom line - any effective leader in American System has to ‘win’ the argument with Public; the system in itself would then not pose any hindrance.

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