Pundits who are finding fault with American democratic institutions right now need to begin their diagnosis by looking at what ailes the Republican Party.
One of the things that you’re going to be reading plenty of, particularly when the budget battles kick in again this fall, is that the American democratic system is broken. Jacob Hacker and Oona Hathaway have a typical example in the New York Times today. Their claim: Congress is dysfunctional, leading to power grabs by the president and a general erosion of normal American democratic processes.
I don’t agree. For one thing, as of now it appears that everyone successfully managed to get to a deal. The fact that both sides fought hard up to the deadline isn’t really a sign of a flaw in the system; it’s more or less what you would expect.
But I do think there’s something broken, and it isn’t the system: it’s the GOP. The problem isn’t that they’re very conservative. Even a party with policy preferences to the right of Rand Paul could, in theory, manage to bargain with even a very liberal Democratic Party. The problem, rather, is that the GOP’s incentives are skewed. Rather than caring about policy, they appear to care more about symbolism, such as a Balanced Budget Amendment, than about actual policy. Rather than caring about cutting the best deal they can get, they appear to care more about proving their loyalty to the cause (they refused to deal on health care even though so doing might have gotten them more of what they wanted). This requires them to oppose Democratic presidents regardless of what it means in substantive gains or losses.
The result is that Republicans wind up following the lead of hucksters and talk show hosts, even when it leads them to strange places. And that, not anything inherent in Congress even in polarized times, winds up yielding a dysfunctional legislative process. After all, despite the usual bruises and bumps, Congress proved able to legislate reasonably effectively during the four years of Democratic control, and particularly under unified government in 2009-2010. It’s only now, and during the years of unified Republican control, that we are seeing long-time observers complain about a broken Congress or the worst Congress ever. But it’s not Congress that’s broken. It’s the Republican Party.