FAITH + IDEAS =: last updated 12/02/2011

Cutting Democracy: The Super-Committee as Superman?

Volume 4, Issue 15               November 29, 2011

. . . an e-conversation with the faculty of Gordon College . . . 

By Timothy Sherratt

Just before most of us gathered around the Thanksgiving table to slice the turkey, the Super-committee in Washington—charged with slicing $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit—conceded failure. It wasn’t exactly cheery holiday news. But its creation was a failure in the first place.

To secure an agreement on raising the debt ceiling last summer, Congress punted the hard work of making cuts of at least $1.2 trillion dollars over ten years to a secretive committee of twelve. Half of the committee members came from the House, half from the Senate, equally divided among Republicans and Democrats. And under the terms of the committee’s charge, any bill the committee produced was not subject to amendment.

Raising the level of urgency was the threat, written into the legislation that gave the committee its charge, of automatic cuts in domestic and military spending should no bill emerge. To report out a bill, a simple majority was sufficient, which meant at least one member of one party had to cross the aisle. It did not happen. Now the automatic cuts will.

Considering that President Obama has promised to veto any attempts by Congress to defer or cancel these cuts—due to be enacted from 2013—this scenario has gone from bad to worse. Because whatever the fiscal outcomes of the Super-committee’s failure may be, a sizeable cut has already been made in democracy’s trust fund.

The Super-committee proved to be no Superman. It barely cooled the summer’s overheated partisan politics. But more troubling than this, I believe it reflected an entrenched attitude that has shown little appetite for the hard work of legislative deliberation.

With the 2012 presidential campaigns already under way, the decidedly undemocratic yearning for a transforming leader will now seize the media’s attention. Congressional gridlock will be forgotten for a while in the euphoria created by candidates who are going to “transcend politics” or “return America to its founding principles.” And by that time, the Super-committee and its failure will be a thing of the past. But its delusional disposition will live on, with no end in sight. Not for nothing did Thomas Cronin, years ago, refer to “Superman: Our Textbook President.”

For all that is admirable in it, our American political system responds poorly to ideological conflict, especially when the contending forces seem evenly matched. Faced with divided government, the 60-vote cloture rule in the Senate (to stop a filibuster), and a flurry of “no new taxes” pledges to private interest groups, ideologically driven gridlock in a society with no higher call on our exercise of power than sovereign opinion will slowly kill the trust necessary to democratic government.

And restoring trust is no easy matter when Senator X holds his position with religious intensity and Representative Y denounces her opponent’s view with matching fervor. Granted, some elected officials seem to be taking the country’s debt crisis seriously as a political responsibility. But they are not taking it seriously enough to put it ahead of ideological convictions or elected office. Even Greece and Italy have done that much, and in both cases, the price of austerity was a change of government. Perhaps this is prophetic.

So now what? Will the elections, perhaps, solve things by giving us winners and losers? They might. But American elections are poorly structured for confronting ideologically driven politics. Incumbent congresspersons easily win reelection, ideological polarization follows district lines, and incumbents are rewarded, not punished, for refusing to compromise.

Even an unlikely reform of the electoral system—I favor at-large elections in small states and multi-member districts in large ones—may not cure what ails American democracy. The crisis is not just about deficits whose financing gobbles up unsustainable amounts of GDP. It’s about a drain on democracy’s foundational value. That value is not majority rule. It is not even consent of the governed.

It is trust. Trust underwrites the entire machinery of democracy and without it even democratic government is engaged in nothing more than a power play. And that trust begins when elected officials sit down at the table to talk, with a view of actually reaching agreements that promote the common good.

Timothy Sherratt is professor of political science at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. He and his family live in Rowley, MA.