Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Things are getting a little medieval around here

Why did human beings ever go to the trouble of organizing their politics? You see it everywhere, on every level -- countries and states and counties and towns broken down into legislatures and councils and managers and administrators. It seems obvious that we could have politics without so much structure, but equally obvious that something's driving us to build all the structure anyway. So what role do these political structures play that's so vitally important?

That's not rhetorical; I have an answer. On the most basic level, they resolve controversy. All society is riven through with disagreements, big and small, and structured politics is the mechanism we've developed to bring those disagreements to a close.

Before the development of governments and the like, disagreements were most easily resolved by two groups lining up across from each other in a field. The group still standing at the end of the day got to do whatever it wanted. At some point, we seem to have figured out that there was a better way to get things done -- putting someone in charge of making decisions. But that didn't work great either, because a lot of the time the guy who made decisions decided very badly, everyone got angry about it, and the decider would get his head lopped off. So finally we developed a virtual smorgasbord of alternatives, ranging from "The side with the most people voting for it gets what it wants" to "The guy with the most tanks gets to decide."

At the end of the day, though, all these diverse systems have one thing in common -- they find a way to transform individual disagreement into some sort of actionable consensus.

With that in mind, consider the latest news about the Consumer Financial Protection Board. The CFPB found its way into the statute books a year ago, a reaction to the crisis that leveled the financial world in 2008. Its creation was the political system's reaction to widespread -- though not universal! -- concern about the ability of financial companies to devise damaging and deceptive products. The CFPB represented politics functioning as it's supposed to function: absorbing a range of opinions and spitting out a result.

Now skip forward to July 2011. Barack Obama has finally nominated an individual to head up the CFPB: former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray. The Republican response?
Forty-four Republican senators have signed a letter saying they would refuse to vote on any nominee to lead the bureau, demanding instead that the agency replace a single leader with a board of directors.
Now, the appointment power was clearly not given to the Senate as a back-door veto over previously enacted laws. The appointment power was intended to be used as a means for vetting badly-chosen appointees. But if Republicans refuse to appoint any director to the CFPB, the body can never exercise its rulemaking authority, and the appointment power becomes a veto nonetheless.

The problem with this sort of Republican intransigence (besides, of course, its petulance and open disregard for the interests of anyone outside the business lobby) is that it takes place outside the bounds of the established political resolution mechanisms.

First, let's talk about something that does function, in a sense: the American legislative process. The legislative process isn't always pretty or even workable; the various ill-advised checks and balances in the US government ensure that ideas supported by a broad majority nonetheless often end up bottled up with nowhere to go. But even when it resolves a dispute in favor of the wrong side, the legislative process generally does accomplish the first and most fundamental goal of politics: resolving disputes. We know how legislative standoffs end. Either one side gets the votes, or the other does.

By comparison, how does this newest standoff end? It pits two mechanisms for the resolution of political issues -- one legitimate, the other improvised, but both equally potent -- against one another. On one hand, you have a directive originating with the votes of a majority of both houses of Congress and bearing the signature of a duly elected president. On the other, you have the undeniable ability of Republicans in Congress to undermine that validly created directive by simply refusing to do their job.

This is a dynamic repeating itself across the federal government, and in many of the state governments. It happened in the Minnesota government shutdown. It's happening with the debt ceiling. It's happening with the dozens of Obama nominees that Republicans in Congress are refusing to confirm. It happens every time Republicans slash the budget to some government agency below minimum operating requirements.

And while this dynamic is certainly grounds for criticizing Republicans -- no, really, please, criticize away -- it also creates a much deeper problem. It undermines the whole point of politics in the first place. Because in each and every one of these instances, the question is always the same: who actually gets to decide? And in each instance, it's a question without any good answer. Instead, each standoff is resolved on an ad hoc basis. Through some combination of polls and political willpower and happenstance and panic, things sort themselves out.

One nice thing about politics-as-it's-supposed-to-be is that outcomes are predictable. It doesn't take any special powers of divination to say who's on top at any given moment, what that side would prefer, and how they're going to make it happen. A discrete series of steps lie between idea and actuation, and a reasonably informed observer can look at those steps and decide which ones can be completed.

Another nice thing about politics-as-it's-supposed-to-be is that it provides a channel for the efforts of political actors. Rather than spending their time and energy figuring ways to exile, jail, or otherwise silence their opponents, politically motivated groups can focus on working the well-publicized set of political levers that controls the system. Voting in more senators, for instance, or taking charge of the White House.

But as Republicans become more determined to carry their fights outside the predetermined confines of the political arena, these benefits begin to fade away. It's not clear where, if anywhere, Democrats can channel their efforts do to mollify or overcome Republican opposition in the Senate. There's just no clear workaround. And there's no way to predict who will win the impasse that has developed in the meantime. Instead, we've got two sides completely at loggerheads, and we're seemingly stuck without any mechanism to pick a winner.

More and more, this confusion defines our political system. Rather than being a series of orderly contests with predictable results, it's a series of random spasms triggered by unpredictable internal forces. No one can say who will resolve any particular issue, or how. At any given point, a handful of determined troublemakers can overturn widespread political consensus. The nation is increasingly governed in back channels and in response to events that ordinary voters can't control or even affect.

The wisdom of many centuries of governance tells us it's vitally important to know who gets to make decisions. It's taken the Republican Party all of two years to amend that wisdom, adding "so long as that person isn't Barack Obama" to the end.

In the short term, moving important debates into these murky political hinterlands might benefit Republicans. After all, the odds are currently stacked against them, so they'll likely fare better when standoffs are resolved by something resembling pure random chance. But in the long run, we all lose. Because in the long run, it's all of us who are ceding influence over our political destinies to chaotic forces we don't understand. Or put another way: thanks to House Republicans, America's headed back towards the political Dark Ages.

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