The current morass in our politics is not the result of a system too beholden to big money and backroom deals but, in fact, not beholden enough to them, according to a new book by Jonathan Rauch.
"We live in a world of second and often third choices, and in order to govern one must make decisions and engage in practices that look bad up close and are hard to defend in public but which, nonetheless, seem to be the best alternative at the time," Rauch, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, writes in "Political Realism: How hacks, machines, big money and back-room deals can strengthen American democracy." "Always the realist asks: 'Compared with what?' Principles alone mean little until examined in the harsh light of real-world alternatives."
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I would have written that exact same thing if I had been able to write as well as Rauch.
Time and again in the recent history of our politics -- particularly in Congress -- there has been action taken to smite alleged blights on our democracy. Campaign finance reform was passed in the early part of the last decade under the auspices that money in politics was, by its very existence, corrupting. Republicans, fresh off winning the House majority in the 2010 election, banned earmarks to show their commitment to breaking with the old -- and allegedly corrupt -- way of doing things. Democratic senators like Mary Landrieu and Ben Nelson were lambasted by Democrats and Republicans alike for allegedly cutting side deals in the the Affordable Care Act to benefit their states. Hell, we came up with names to label these atrocities against democracy -- Louisiana Purchase! Cornhusker Kickback! -- and Republicans seized on them in the context of campaigns to show just how bad these Democratic incumbents were.
All of that tut-tutting totally misses the point, argues Rauch. The simple fact is that horse-trading -- like the Louisiana Purchase and the Cornhusker Kickback -- is the grease that makes the political machine work effectively. "If most of the players in a political system are invested in dickering, the system is doing something right, not something wrong," he writes. "Back-scratching and log-rolling are signs of a healthy political system, not a corrupt one. Transactional politics is not always appropriate or effective, but a political system which is not reliably capable of it is a system in a state of critical failure."
An attempt to create a system in which backroom deals and big money are eradicated is rife with unintended consequences, Rauch adds. And boy, is he right.
Let's start with campaign finance reform. The goal of the effort led by John McCain and Russ Feingold was to get rid of so-called "soft money," unlimited contributions that could be made by corporations and unions to national parties. The idea was to limit influence by cutting off the money spigot that had opened up between big money players and the national political parties.
Fast forward to today. Big money has never been more powerful in politics thanks to the rise of the super PAC and the mega-donor(s) that fund them. Yes, super PACs grew out of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010 and, therefore, could never have been foreseen by McCain and Feingold. But prior to the rise of the super PAC, huge money was flowing into politics via 527s, organizations that could take unlimited contributions and were overseen, barely, by the Internal Revenue Service. There's no debate that political money became less transparent in the post-McCain-Feingold era than it had been before it.
Now for the earmark ban. In theory, it made sense for Republicans to jettison the process of individual members adding pet projects to unrelated legislation since, as Rauch notes, each earmark looked terrible up close.
McCain was, again, at the center of this push. If you followed five minutes of the 2008 presidential campaign, you likely heard him utter these words: "My friends, we spent $3 million of your money to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Now I don’t know if that was a paternity issue or a criminal issue, but the point is, it was $3 million of your money." His point was obvious: The government is wasting your money and earmarks is how it does it.
The problem was -- and is -- that earmarks were central to things actually getting done in Congress. Like him or hate him, Tom DeLay, during his time as whip and then majority leader, used earmarks as both a carrot and stick to effectively run the House. Did he -- and other members of Republican leadership -- take things too far? Yes. But throwing the baby out with the bathwater has made Speaker John Boehner effectively toothless within his own conference. Boehner's only tool to convince his side is pure charm; there is no stick anymore. And if you've watched the Republican-led House over the past four years, you know how well that approach has worked out.
Unmentioned by Rauch but also indicative of the unintended consequences of "cleaning up" our government is President Obama's ban on lobbyists serving within his administration. The move was made to take a stand against an idea rampant among the electorate -- or assumed to be rampant among the electorate -- that overpaid fat cats were running the government, padding their own pockets rather than looking out for the good of society.
Of course, the truth was far more complex. Many lobbyists, particularly in very specialized areas, were the only people with the know-how to make things work right. The lack of that institutional wisdom led to a very rough first few years for Obama and his team as they struggled mightily to simply get a grasp on the scope of the federal bureaucracy. And, yes, Obama eventually partially reversed his lobbyist ban.
"Banning some ugly political practice ... won't necessarily make it go away," Rauch sagely notes.
The truth Rauch speaks, which is sort of the political version of Colonel Jessup's "you need me on that wall" speech, isn't popular.
After all, there is a sort of Platonic ideal of politics in which every candidate is given $9.50 to spend, the campaign is conducted solely through a series of 51 Lincoln-Douglas style debates -- I see you, Newt Gingrich! -- and 100 percent of registered voters turn out to vote.
Of course, that world doesn't exist. And we can never legislate it into being. In fact, the "cleaner" we try to make the political environment, the more susceptible we are to antibodies that we never saw coming and that carry the potential to cripple the body politic in ways we never imagined. (See, that right there is called a metaphor.)
Instead of cleaning up politics, we'd do well to make it a little dirtier. It might actually start working then.