Huffington Post: How to fix Washington’s gridlock

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How to Fix America’s Gridlock

The midterm elections loom but everyone knows what the outcome will be: gridlock, gridlock and more gridlock.

That’s because the U.S. system is based on a 227-year-old prototype (circa 1787) that badly needs a refresh to match the efficiency and transparency that characterizes other, superior government systems.

Washington’s dysfunction is a competitive disadvantage due to its flawed template. If America was a corporation, its CEO would be answerable to shareholders every four years, but would have no control over management or budgets, except a veto. Even more complicating is the fact that America’s management is left up to political parties that are coalitions of convenience for entrepreneurial politicians who seek party branding in order to get on ballots or to get financing. Once elected, they often end up representing competing or extremist agendas, regional interests, ideologies, and goals that vary from party platforms or from their congressional leaders’ or president’s recommendations.

This, in turn, opens up multiple, continuous fronts of political warfare: the Senate versus the House, the President versus one or both, and dozens of partisans against one another. It also spawns an “American Idol” political culture in which sabotage or posturing by rogue party members, such as Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz or Michele Bachmann, vaults their profiles and prospects beyond that of party leaders.

By comparison, Germany and Britain are run by CEOs (called chancellors or prime ministers) who must control a majority of the legislative seats, thus assuring that their policies and budgets are passed. If they lose their majority, a snap election is called or, in the case of Germany, a new CEO is appointed by legislators and given 24 hours to form a coalition to finish the four-year tenure.

The majority of new democracies since 1945 have rejected the American framework in favor of parliamentary-style systems that fuses executive and legislative functions. Each has different bells and whistles but they also separate the head of state function from the CEO. In Britain, the head of state is the Queen and in Germany, it’s an appointed statesman.

The United States, by contrast, has remained fossilized and contorted by checks and balances. As former Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon said in 1992 “the president blames Congress, the Congress blames the president, and the public remains confused and disgusted with government in Washington.”

This situation perplexes given America’s aspiration, in every other endeavor, to be efficient, innovative, and best in its class. Yet when it comes to political structure, Washington historically cannot, short of a system-threatening domestic or national security crisis, deliver decisiveness, transparency, accountability, or alignment with the public interest.

Some blame politics or polarization for this, but Germany has five sitting political parties and Britain nine. Their electorates are divided so they are currently governed by coalitions, requiring them to maintain a majority through consensus and compromise to govern.

Back in 1885, Woodrow Wilson preferred parliamentary to presidential systems and blamed the congressional committee system for corruption and for being undemocratic. As constituted then and now, chairs of committees are selected strictly on the basis of seniority, often conduct meetings in private, and generally are unaccountable. During his day there were 47 committees.

Now there are 200. America is “divided up, as it were, into 47 seignories, in each of which a Standing Committee is the court-baron and its chairman lord- proprietor,” wrote Wilson. “These petty barons, some of them not a little powerful, but none of them within reach [of] the full powers of rule, may at will exercise an almost despotic sway within their own shires, and may sometimes threaten to convulse even the realm itself.”

Paradoxically, reliance in parliamentary systems on strong political parties and leaders reduces the excessive influence peddling and lobbying that co-opts and corrupts Congress and its committees. This is because members of Parliament are the political equivalent of legs on a centipede and must vote the party line or be expelled from the caucus. Only prime ministers can be effectively lobbied to change policies or direction and they must hold daily press conferences when parliament is in session. And when prime ministers become dictatorial they are ousted by their caucuses, as happened in the case of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher after 15 years in power.

This poor governance model impedes sound financial management. If United States Incorporated were a publicly listed, with the CEO and Congressional “directors” at war over budgets for years, it would have long since been de-listed from stock exchanges. But governments don’t get de-listed; their creditworthiness gets downgraded.

So in 2011 Washington’s internecine warfare caused a rating drop from AAA to AA+, and Standard & Poor’s issued the following statement: “The downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have no budget is in place. This removes from the political fray a decision that could jeopardize the nation’s fiscal health or survival.”

Other parliamentary systems do not guarantee better judgment, nor do their politicians faithfully ascribe to fiscal rectitude, but they can expeditiously respond to crises or public groundswells. In1992, Canada’s debt rating was downgraded from AAA to AA+ after a downturn and years of profligacy. The Liberal government was slammed by the public, press and rating agencies, then reversed course with draconian cuts for a decade until the AAA rating returned.

Unfortunately, constitutional amendments are impossible so how can change come about?

Woodrow Wilson recommended reforms, what he called “cabinet government,” wherein a de facto fusion of Executive and Legislative branches could eliminate friction and warfare by requiring the President to appoint key legislators to sit in his cabinet. Newt Gingrich, in his Contract with America, attacked the congressional committee status quo by suggesting that the number be cut in half or more; that staff budgets be decreased by one third; that term limits be placed on committee chairs; that proxy votes in committees be banned; and that all meetings be open to the public and press.

The U.S. budget process could be simplified and expedited by referring the President’s budget request directly, for sixty days, to a joint Congressional Super Committee of 12 legislators, similar to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction struck in August 2011. Membership would consist of six from the House and six from the Senate, with an equal representation of Democrats and Republicans. They would consult, review, and finalize a revised budget for a simple up-or-down vote, without amendment, in both Houses — just as the votes on BRAC and fast-track trade authority have worked in years past.

Most urgently, debt ceiling brinkmanship must cease. One way to stop it is to agree to index the ceiling to GDP growth and require approval only if debt levels exceeded growth. Without this, obstructionists can flirt with default, as happened in 2011. This procedure is equivalent to letting toddlers play with matches to the point of immolating the entire global economy. The inherent danger underscores the need for immediate debt ceiling reform in the national and global interest.

Clearly, something’s got to give. The miraculous and transformative template of 1787 has reached its best-before date a long time ago and is no way to run a country, a corporation or even a lemonade stand.

Excerpted from the September-October issue of The American Interest