Is Peter Orszag against democracy?
Peter Orszag’s New Republic article arguing that “we need less democracy” is getting a lot of attention, but mostly for the wrong reasons. “We need less democracy” is a good headline, but if you read the piece closely, that’s not actually what Orszag is arguing. Rather, he’s arguing that we need less Congress. And that’s a bit different.
Orszag is really worried about the way party polarization leads to “paralyzing gridlock” in our system. But that’s often because Congress actually isn’t that democratic. The filibuster foils majority rule and exacerbates the consequences of political polarization in the Senate, and the six-year election cycle and lack of proportional representation further insulate the chamber from democratic trends. Legislators also pulled toward party discipline and away from their voters by the desire to chair committees and secure campaign cash through the party’s fundraising apparatus. And as for whether Congress works this way because this is how the American people want it to work, a quick look at the legislative branch’s poll numbers will disabuse anyone if that notion.
If you imagine a Congress that operates more like the House of Representatives -- two-year terms, every seat up for election at the same time, no filibuster, mostly proportional representation, etc -- you can imagine a Congress that is much more democratic, much less gridlocked, but arguably even more polarized. Which goes to the point: polarization does not necessarily lead to paralysis. It’s the interaction between polarization and some of the unique features of our political system that leads to paralysis.
Orszag’s actual proposals, of course, are much more modest than the House-ification of the United States Congress. He wants to see unemployment insurance and the payroll tax cut tied to the unemployment rate, triggers that will help push Congress to act, and more semi-independent commissions and boards that can produce proposals that are protected from the filibuster. In some cases, like the idea for commissions whose recommendations would be immune to the filibuster, Orszag’s ideas would arguably make the chamber somewhat more democratic. But in all cases, it helps to understand his project for what it is: an effort to get around congressional paralysis, not to get around democracy.