The banner headline in Wednesday's Washington Post struck a depressingly familiar chord: "Payroll Tax Cut and Spending Bill Stall in Senate, Raising Threat of Shutdown".
The specifics of why the Government might have closed on Friday are increasingly irrelevant. The payroll tax cut is important, especially for the 160 million Americans affected, yet if this particular issue was resolved, the inaction of Congress on some other matter would still be “raising threat of shutdown.”
This is the fourth time this year that politicians have played the game of brinkmanship with their budgetary responsibilities, sending federal officials scurrying to determine what should and should not be shut down in the event that no compromise deal was reached. This impasse in Washington over government spending --- adding the failure of the deficit "Supercommittee" to reach a settlement amidst the four shutdown dramas – is the new default position of American politics.
Perhaps it is just realpolitik pragmatism that confrontation has replaced compromise as the standard for running the US Government in Washington. In this scenario, the polarising nature of political debate is always bubbling away under the surface, only to erupt into the open when economic dislocation threatens the future of the nation. You can back this with historical references: following the promise of the Progressive Era, it is a salutary reminder that the passions of the 1912 Presidential election and the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913 were driven not by hope, but by the Bank Panic of 1907.
The lesson, ultimately, is that when confrontation and gridlock become too entrenched in Washington, changes –-- however slow --- will try to dampen the partisanship. Continuous political fighting is tiring, not just for the politicians but for their constituents as well. And in the "truce" that will eventually be reached when exhaustion sets in, democratic reforms previously regarded as impossible to enact can in time triumph. A formidable example, from another country and another time, is the People's Charter of 1838 in Britain, which made these six "radical" demands:
1. One man – over 21 years of age – one vote (male universal suffrage)
2. Secret ballot
3. No property qualifications for MPs (allowing the poor to stand as a candidate)
4. Payment for MPs (allowing the poor to stand as a candidate)
5. Equal constituencies (each seat in Parliament to represent the same number of voters)
6. Annual Parliaments
It took many years, but over time five of those six revolutionary ideas became an accepted part of the British political system. You can still make a case for adopting the 6th of annual Parliaments, using their reasoning:
Thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelve-month; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.
With the current preoccupation with campaign finance, and special interests 'buying' politicians, in the United States the Chartists demand no longer appears utopian. And if you want to extend the historical trend even further the Chartists' call, for annual Parliaments, was merely a reworking of the same arguments Thomas Paine used in the Revolutionary Period to counter the corrupt influence of money in American politics.
So I am not automatically dismissing as impossible two bipartisan proposals made this week to help solve the current gridlock in Washington. The first, by the independent and moderate group No Labels, involves moderate reforms to Make Congress Work! The second, by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), aims to reform Medicare on a bipartisan basis to take the sting out of the most contentious of current issues --- America's unsustainable debt and deficit problems.
On Tuesday, a group of current and ex-Senators, among others, unveiled their plan “to change the rules and fix what's broken". Or, as ex-Senator Evan Bayh explained in an email circular announcing the No Labels event:
Even when I was governor of Indiana, I had to work with people across the aisle to find solutions for our state’s problems. As a member of Congress, I was shocked how that simply didn’t happen here. I know there are good people in Washington -- but they’re stuck in a broken system. It’s time to fix it.
No Labels wants to fix Congress in 12 ways, including No Budget, No Pay; Fix the Filibuster; Make Members Come to Work; Question Time (monthly) for the President; No Pledge but the Oath of Office;12. No Negative Campaigns Against Incumbents.
These are all moderate, or non-revolutionary enough, to warrant consideration on Capitol Hill. And though their implementation in the near-term is improbable, they are part of a dialogue where Congress will change as a response to the present hyper-partisanship, adopting some if not all of the suggestions.
The call for a monthly Presidential Question Time deserves attention, and not just for the novelty value. No Labels argues that the administration and the opposition are guilty of talking past each other. Their solution is to...
...take a cue from the British Parliament's regular questioning of the prime minister to create question time for the president and Congress. These meetings occasionally may be contentious, but at least they force leaders to actually debate one another and defend their ideas. Here's how it would work: on a rotating basis the House and Senate would issue monthly invitations to the president to appear in the respective chamber for questions and discussion. Each question period would last for 90 minutes and would be televised. The majority and minority would alternate questions. The president could, at his discretion, bring one or more cabinet members to the question period and refer specific questions to them.
No Labels claims this the proposal “can be imposed by House or Senate leadership” and, as with all of their ideas, can be established as practice within 24 hours.
Rep. Ryan and Sen. Wyden are not quite as sanguine as No Labels when it comes to the time frame,but they are optimistic that their ideas for reforming Medicare can gain enough traction over time to become law. Hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center Debt Reduction Task Force, the two lawmakers on Thursday morning revealed their plan for the future of Medicare in a lengthy White Paper.
They alsosummarised their proposals in a piece for the Wall Street Journal.The major compromise in their plan, as opposed to the Medicare premium support idea suggested by Rep. Ryan earlier this year, is that the federally supported health provision program will continue to exist alongside the newly created private option:
Our plan would strengthen traditional Medicare by permanently maintaining it as a guaranteed and viable option for all of our nation's retirees. At the same time, our plan would expand choice for seniors by allowing the private sector to compete with Medicare in an effort to offer seniors better-quality and more affordable health-care choices.
The competitiveness of the private insurance market (more customers equalling more demand for their money) would also be aided by the introduction of a "free choice option", where employees at small businesses can take their employer contribution to health care and buy a private plan:
The cost to the employer—and the tax-free benefit to the worker—would remain the same. Combined with expanded choices for Medicare beneficiaries, this would also make it possible for more and more Americans to transfer into Medicare without having to change doctors and insurance.
An accompanying editorial in the Journal praised the plan as “an important moment because it shows that the serious entitlement debate is taking place within the camp of choice and incentives, not the Obama status quo". But more importantly for the next eleven months before the election, it could scupper the Democrats' plan to stigmatise conservative Republicans with "Mediscare".
Rep. Ryan always maintained that his original proposal to reform Medicare was a starting point for discussion, and not the absolute remedy for spiralling health care costs. This plan shows that he was serious about attempting to find a bipartisan solution to America's entitlement spending crisis, while remaining realistic that the present partisan conflict in Washington might not be ready to implement the ideas:
Yes, these are ambitious reforms, and while we are hopeful for the future, we are under no illusions that they will pass tomorrow. Nevertheless, we offer this plan as proof that Democrats and Republicans don't have to spend next year making Medicare reform more difficult. Instead, our parties can work together on bipartisan reforms to save and strengthen Medicare.
Announcing the cooperative proposal, the Congressman took aim at politicians on his own side in a National Review Online interview about the Republican contest for the Presidential nomination.
Ryan adds that he is still undecided about whether he will endorse a candidate. But his message to Gingrich and the rest of the field is clear. “Leaders need to go out and change things, speaking to people as adults,” he says. “We should not shy away from this fight, even though we know the Democrats will demagogue us."
The announcement of this bipartisan plan to reform Medicare, and the No Labels ideas to reform Congress, came in the week when a survey by the Pew Research Center showed Congressional approval at record low. Once that anti-incumbent anger at a do-nothing Congress finally translates into political action for reform, it will be interesting to see if either of these two moderate suggestions are part of the subsequent changes.
There is another intriguing possibility: that the next year will see demands grow for an even more radical root-and=branch reform of the American political system . As of now that is a distinct improbability, but consider a possible situation next summer when the economic crisis has deepened, and the Supreme Court strikes down Democrats' health-care reforms as unconstitutional while simultaneously upholding Arizona's immigration law. That is a route to annual elections and legislative restraint of the judiciary, two of the radical ideas of the past that have yet to become an accepted part of the democratic tradition.