Too Much Democracy? A Modest Proposal From N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue
North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue caused a bit of a stir this week when she suggested that maybe Americans should call off a round or two of elections and let politicians focus on government instead of getting elected.
It’s not going to happen, of course - the United States has held elections through the Civil War and World Wars and the Great Depression – but it speaks to the general frustration many Americans have with partisanship and gridlock in Washington.
“You have to have more ability from Congress, I think, to work together and to get over the partisan bickering and focus on fixing things,” Perdue said, speaking at the Rotary Club in Cary, N.C. Tuesday. “I think we ought to suspend, perhaps, elections for Congress for two years and just tell them we won’t hold it against them, whatever decisions they make, to just let them help this country recover. …You want people who don’t worry about the next election.”
Her office suggested that the comments were some sort of hyperbolic joke, although she sounds serious on audio posted online.
Read more about Perdue’s comments from the Raleigh News and Observer.
Frustration with partisanship is not new and it is not isolated. Sixty-nine percent of Americans have a negative view of government, according to the most recent ABC News-Washington Post poll.
But Perdue’s suggestion to call off the 2012 general election has been coupled with a recent essay by Peter Orzsag, President Obama’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget and a key figure in the passage of Democrats’ health law, and held up by conservative bloggers as part of a s0-called democratic assault on democracy.
Orzsag, in an article titled “Too Much of a Good Thing: Why We Need Less Democracy,” said his stint working for the president convinced him that the country’s “political polarization was growing worse – harming Washington’s ability to do the basic, necessary work of governing.”
“So what to do?” Orzsag asked in the article, published by the New Republic Sept. 14.
“To solve the serious problems facing our country, we need to minimize the harm from legislative inertia by relying more on automatic policies and depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions. In other words, radical as it sounds, we need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic.”
He endorsed a more progressive tax system and Fed-style bodies to deal with everything from tax policy to infrastructure funding.
“I know that such ideas carry risks,” Orzsag wrote. “And I have arrived at these proposals reluctantly: They come more from frustration than from inspiration. But we need to confront the fact that a polarized, gridlocked government is doing real harm to our country. And we have to find some way around it.”
The idea that politicians need the ability to govern without so much concentration on politics runs against the whole idea of the U.S. system of government, according to Matthew Spalding, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“We need to get directions from the American people,” he said of elections.
And the government, he said, should not operate exactly like a business. “It was designed so that it wouldn’t react immediately to things. One of the things you want to filter out is the passions of the moment. You don’t want an immediate negative reaction lead to a policy change of great magnitude. It needs to be deliberative. But it s still decisive,” Spalding said.
It’s hard to imagine Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican, endorsing much of what Orzsag suggested and he’s surely unlikely to suggest holding off on upcoming elections. But he is resigning from the Republican leadership in the Senate: He has been the third-ranking Republican senator. He wants to stay in the Senate, but leave the Republican leadership because he said he can get more done for his constituents if he’s an independent voice. Alexander has vocally supported bipartisan ideas to deal with the long-term shortfalls of Medicare and Social Security. He broke with the Republican leadership on one such proposal earlier this year and has high hopes for the so-called Supercommittee that is drafting a new deficit-reduction proposal.
But a top Alexander adviser told the New York Times that the short-term political environment makes it difficult for politicians to show real courage. “If the voters wanted politicians with courage, they’d reward them,” said Mike Murphy, the Alexander adviser, to the New York Times. “Voters punish people who behave like that.”
Alexander is not the only Republican to get frustrated with partisanship. During the last major Congressional debate on comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, then the No. 2 Senate Republican, gave a fiery speech on the Senate floor, trying to goad his colleagues to allow a vote.
“If we can’t do this, we ought to vote to dissolve the Congress and go home and wait for the next election,” Lott said. “This is a time where we are going to see whether we are a United States Senate anymore. Are we men or mice? Are we going to slither away from this issue and hope for some epiphany to happen? No. Let’s, let’s let’s legislate. Let’s vote.” Watch Lott’s Mice and Men speech.
That immigration proposal was defeated on procedural motion. Lott resigned from the Senate at the end of that year. “People are very frustrated with what appears to be partisan gamesmanship,” professor Randall Strahan of Emory University in Atlanta said. “People are right to be frustrated when leaders in the political parties are maneuvering for political advantage. On the other hand, the things that’s working the way it should is that when the voters themselves are divided, the system is set up so that the government reflects that division.
“The fact that things are in a bit of a stalemate right now does indicate that the system is working somewhat,” he said, because the country itself is so divided.
But Strahan rejected Orzsag’s suggestion that tax policy should be ceded by Congress to a special panel and pointed to the Constitutional requirement that tax policy bills originate in the House, where lawmakers are elected more often and by fewer people.
The power of taxation should be firmly in the hands of the house that is closest to the will of the people,” Strahan said, pointing to the Constitution and arguing that the framers wanted the people to have a “prominent say in the decision to reach into citizens pockets to take their money.”