Needed: More Technocrats
Polarization in Washington and the country at large has paralyzed the U.S. system of government. That's why most Americans don't care about the midterm elections. Whatever happens, they think, it won't make a difference. White House, Senate and House of Representatives will fight each other to a standstill, as always.
One can hope for better politicians and leaders more capable of leading. Just possibly, tinkering with the electoral machinery might help. Partisan redistricting shifts power from general-election voters to party-primary voters, who may choose candidates less amenable to compromise and further to the left or right. But a ban on gerrymandering -- desirable as that might be -- wouldn't solve the problem. The causes of polarization are deeper and less treatable.
Paralyzing political division might be a chronic, even worsening, illness that the U.S. just has to live with. Treating the symptoms might be the best you can do.
The most plausible palliative would be for Washington to take its habit of forming expert presidential commissions and do something more far-reaching. The Base Realignment and Closure Commissions, starting in the 1980s, are the classic instance of policy by delegation: In effect, Congress agreed to put itself at one remove from decisions about which military bases to close. In order to get something done -- something that obviously needed to be done -- Congress disempowered itself and passed the hard choices to somebody else.
The BRAC model inspired other occasional attempts, including most recently the Simpson-Bowles commission on the budget. In that case, the results weren't so good. The commission worked up a smart, fair plan for reducing the long-term budget deficit. This was backed by a majority of the commission's members, but not (after defections on party lines) by the super-majority needed to trigger Congressional action. In that sense, it failed. Yet it raised the standard of the discussion, helped the public and the press to understand the issues, and exerted pressure on Congress to do something. It wasn't useless.
I'd like to see a different kind of commission. Temporary panels charged with specific legislative tasks or investigations are fine, but there's also a need for permanent agencies with a wider policy-making remit.
Consider the Federal Reserve -- an extreme case, admittedly, but an instructive one. The Fed is a remarkable constitutional anomaly. It controls vital instruments of economic policy and holds that fate of the country in its hands, yet operates with a high degree of political independence. You don't hear people arguing that monetary-policy decisions should be taken by a committee of Congress. In operational terms, there's no reason why they shouldn't be; it's just that Congress's record of reckless incompetence makes the idea seem like a joke.
The Fed has its critics, of course, and its unique constitutional dispensation is challenged from time to time, but its political independence is mostly seen as a good thing. Yet the idea of replicating that idea, and creating other permanent, semi-independent policy-making agencies, almost never comes up.
There's a reason for that. It's hard to imagine that an independent fiscal agency, for instance, would ever be allowed to do for U.S. budget policy what the Fed does for interest rates. Decisions about taxes and spending -- about who gets what and who pays -- are too contentious, too close to the core of democratic politics. Congress will never permanently delegate them the way it's delegated monetary policy. However, a bit more power-sharing might be possible, and that would be better than nothing.
In recent years, many countries have created independent or semi-independent "fiscal councils" with open-ended reporting, oversight and advisory roles. Economists at the International Monetary Fund recently surveyed these efforts. The U.S. Congressional Budget Office was one of the fiscal councils they reviewed.
The CBO is an interesting case. Though very different from the Fed, it's another remarkable institution. It's much the best staffed and most generously financed of all the fiscal councils; and its reputation for probity and analytical excellence is unsurpassed. Yet, as a creature of Congress designed to serve the interests of Congress, its powers are minimal. It estimates the budgetary cost of legislative proposals, and it reviews the fiscal outlook. But its work is strictly bounded (by rules which Congress has become adept at gaming). It doesn't give advice, much less make policy.
Perhaps this constraint is the price of independence -- but it would be good to see the limits tested. How about a standing fiscal agency with the CBO's impartiality, authority and access to information, without Fed-like policy-making power but mandated to critique proposals and press recommendations of its own. Think tanks can't do this: They lack the resources and in most cases they have partisan loyalties. Even when they're right, their credibility is in doubt.
Why might Congress ever agree to such a thing? For the same reason it took part in the Simpson-Bowles effort -- because from time to time it's maneuvered into needing to seem more responsible. Or perhaps because some members of Congress do actually regret the institution's incapacity, and think that a bit more outside pressure would help.
There's plenty of scope for other such semi-independent agencies. I'd like to see one on taxation, another on the criminal-justice system, and another on financial regulation. All of these are areas in which the performance of the U.S. Congress has been beyond bad.
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