Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution, a dear friend and one of the nation’s most insightful and thoughtful political observers, explains in a provocative Atlantic piece “How American Politics Went Insane.” The short answer, more fully elaborated in Jonathan’s earlier e-book, is disintermediation—that is, the demolition of political structures and mechanisms that, in a system of divided powers, make politics work and enable “middlemen” and power brokers to protect the system against crazies. Primaries and campaign finance reforms have weakened the parties. The destruction of the seniority and committee system has disabled Congress from legislating even when a (latent) consensus does exist. “Open government” reforms have constricted the space that is needed for political bargaining. The “pork” that once greased the system has mostly disappeared. Over time, the institutional immune system has collapsed. The ensuing chaos has produced further public disaffection and populist agitation against “the establishment.” It’s a feedback loop, and not a good one.
A few years ago Eugene Steuerle (Brookings) and his colleague Tim Roeper developed a “fiscal democracy index.” It measures the extent to which revenues are already claimed by permanent programs—the big entitlement programs, and interest payments on the debt. The remaining “discretionary” portion has to pay for the entire government’s operations, from defense to roads to education to the DoJ. The trajectory over the past half-century looks like this: Note how in this as in many other respects, the Clinton years look pretty darn good. And note how the index turned negative in 2009. The picture going forward doesn’t look much…
This episode of Liberty Law Talk is a conversation with congressional scholar Louis Fisher on his recent book, Congress: Protecting Individual Rights. Fisher argues that contrary to popular belief, Congress, not the Court, has been the foremost champion in protecting the rights of racial minorities, children, Native Americans, and religious liberties.
Judge Merrick Garland may be the best for which constitutionalists can reasonably hope with a President Clinton or President Trump in the offing, but there is no basis on the record presented thus far for the popular press’ breathless conclusion—see, for example, here and here—that he believes in judicial restraint rightly, which is to say politically, understood.
Peggy Noonan recently suggested that “elites are often the last to see their system is under siege. ‘It couldn’t be, I’ve done so well.’” There is much to this idea, especially in a nation like America where many are, in fact, doing very well, and are often socially isolated from others who are not doing so well. Near zero interest rates have flooded the stock market with money, and that, among other things, has been good for the wealthy. Outside of that, however, things are tougher, and not only economically. Because Americans are increasingly isolated socially and economically, our governing class often has trouble seeing this reality.
Our system was supposed to be designed to ensure regular contact between elites and the common citizen.
Christopher DeMuth, the great conservative authority on regulatory policy, comes to Liberty Law Talk to discuss his recent work on the institutional decline of congress and how it can return to its place of constitutional prominence.
The presidential nominating contests continue to befuddle prognosticators, but the consensus winner of the Syntactical Caucus of 2016 is already in. Whether Republican or Democrat, the next President will almost certainly display an unreasoning proclivity for the first person singular.
Congress is notoriously lousy at terminating the life of government entities. However, in a stroke of sheer genius, it has managed to make one of them homeless: the U.S. Tax Court.
Constitutions built upon a separation of powers were not made to last. The conceit that executive and legislative branches of government might be set in equipoise, and balance each other off over the decades, was amusingly mocked by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. in The Deacon’s Masterpiece (1858):
Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay,
That was built in such a logical way
It ran a hundred years to a day…?
The secret to building a carriage, the Deacon thought, was to make each piece as strong as the rest, so that no one part wears out first. And as there’d never be a weakest spot, the shay would go on forever, just like the imagined Madisonian Constitution. Well, it lasted and lasted, the talk of the town, until 100 years to the day it all collapsed at once and the new owner found himself sitting on a pile of ashes. No part wore out first. Everything went simultaneously. “End of the wonderful one-hoss shay. Logic is logic. That’s all I say.”