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Number One, Mister Speaker!

April 28, 2011

Reflections on the Budget Debate, and an Idea for Improving the Political Debate in the US

by J.Andrew Zalucky

Political positions reflect an individual’s values and principles, so that if you stand for anything, a debate should get you at least a little worked up. So before you watch political television, make sure you have a strong drink or some other form of intellectual morphine on hand. Discussion in the US has become a nauseating mix of hyperbolic populist nonsense combined with the insecure ambition to get “offended” by just about everything. The US has slogged through several “debates” about healthcare, or taxes, and foreign policy, you name it. Essentially, this reduces to questions of money, which makes the debate about Federal Budget of paramount importance. Both sides continue to balk at the proposals drafted by the deficit commission, and with the shadow of the 2012 election growing larger every day, this is unlikely to change. Anyone with real sense, who sees the need for the US not to default, wants both sides to come to a compromise. What we don’t need however are more people naively arguing that if we would only be sweet to each other, we could fix our “broken politics.” The notion that we need more civility, while certainly correct, ignores the problem in the first place. We need an environment that allows us channel our passions into the realm of honest and vigorous debate.

When the situation in the US has gone awry, some American intellectuals will inevitably look to Europe, and especially Great Britain. I often hear political pundits say things like “look at the British, why can’t we be more like them” or “the British are getting their ‘fiscal house’ in order, why don’t we have the courage to do the same?” (If I never hear the phrase ‘fiscal house’ ever again, I think I’ll be very happy) At first glance, the envy has its merits. Britain’s coalition government has taken some tough steps to close Britain’s budget deficit. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats put in place measures that will increase the state pension age to 66, implement a two year pay freeze for public sector workers, and initiate several other reforms. The government even had the guts to raise VAT (value added tax) from 17.5% to 20%, and capital gains taxes for higher-income earners. And this was just for the emergency budget. After the spending review last autumn, nearly all departmental budgets faced deep cuts, averaging 19% across the board. An even bigger test came when the government proposed fee increases on University students. This led to ferocious protests and public anger, aimed especially at the Liberal Democrats. In face of widespread resentment, the government held its nerve and passed its reforms.

But is it really that simple? Many economists would argue that Britain’s situation was far more urgent than our own. Our $1.6 Trillion dollar deficit and roughly $14 Trillion in national debt look enormous when compared to the British figures. However, that’s only if you ignore the percentages. At the time of the general election, Britain’s deficit stood at 12% of GDP, higher even than that of Greece (9.3%), making its deficit the worst in the European Union. At £903bn, their national debt came out to 62.2% of GDP. And even with the independence of the British Pound, the UK is not immune to the troubles in the Eurozone. Since we’re talking about currency, it’s also important to note that Britain lacks the flexibility that the US has thanks to our reserve currency.

It can also be easier to pass legislation in Britain than it is in the United States. In the UK, the government does not have to worry about an indefinite filibuster threat from the upper house, or a veto from their executive. The House of Lords can only block money-oriented legislation for up to one month, making it hard for them to disrupt the business of Government. As for the Queen, her powers are largely ceremonial and have been for a very long time. If the ruling party or coalition has a majority in the Commons, this gives it the mandate it needs to set an agenda and vote on it. Only a major rebellion from its members or a no-confidence vote can do anything to derail this. Some Americans actually yearn for this system, citing the abuses of Senate filibuster rules. Do they have a point? Republicans seem addicted to the filibuster and there’s no reason to doubt that the Democrats would not act the same way. Infuriating as congressional gridlock is, our system was fashioned so that the minority party and its constituents still have some power to influence legislation. This makes politics more deliberative and allows for more checks and balances on the power of the majority. With those fundamentals in mind, I do not think that the US should switch to a purely parliamentary system. Even if it was a good idea, at this point it would be practically impossible.

While I don’t propose an overhaul to the legislative process, there are positive things we could add to it. Perhaps there is an element of Britain’s political culture we could integrate into our own. Moving on from the micro-view of the budget, let’s switch to a larger scale. I began with my complaint about the discourse in the US. What do I mean? There are two major theatres of debate in the United States: one on Capitol Hill comprised of the House and Senate, and another in the media.

When politicians go for an interview, they treat it like a campaign commercial. When faced with a tough question, the response is little more than a vague mess of clichés and platitudes cobbled together in the hope of not upsetting voters. Even if you bring in representatives from safe districts (“tea-partiers” and “progressives”), they will probably just initiate a screaming match littered with nonsense about how the other side trying to destroy “the fabric of our nation”. In a classic form of demagoguery, they capitalize on the fears and prejudices of their constituents. They don’t want you to think about anything, they just want you to feel something. In a sense, commercial media lacks the incentive to effectively test politicians. Media has become so segmented that a person could go an entire day without challenging their own confirmation bias. I value the availability of choice just as much as anyone else, but I also love a good argument. Of course, some programs are better than others. There are a few honest journalists and hosts who will make their guests budge, but this needs to happen more often.

Debates on the House Floor or The Senate are conducted by members standing alone at the podium, where they give their position, yield the floor to another member and take their seat. Once again, this is closer to monologue than to dialogue. And yes, there are the debates in the House and Senate committees where members can address each other directly. However, most Americans don’t identify with their Senator or Representative, and as much as it pains me to say this, most people don’t watch CSPAN.

When it comes to national politics, most Americans think of the President first. This reflects our executive-based political culture and makes it extremely important for the President to be engaged in the debate. Yes, he can address the nation on national television. Yes, he can pump people up at political rallies or at the annual State of the Union address. These are examples of political monologue, and while they serve a certain purpose, what we really need is political dialogue. “What about press conferences?” you say. What about them? We do not elect our reporters. Even if they were all brilliant and didn’t ask lame questions, my point would still be the same. And yes, we have the presidential debates. But these are only held every four years and the opponents aren’t even supposed to address each other directly. We should not have to wait every four years for the President to get a real challenge.

In 2010, there came a rare, promising moment of political clarity. That January, the House Republicans invited President Obama to give a quick speech and participate in a question and answer session at their annual retreat in Baltimore. In an unprecedented move, the entire event was televised. Obama’s speech was typical enough, but the Q & A was like nothing I’d seen before. It was heated, contentious, and as is the stock complaint of our day, it might have been a little “divisive”, and so much the better. For once, there was a serious yet still civil confrontation between the two sides. I remember the conservative complaint: “But all Obama did was lecture”. Mr. Obama can be very longwinded, but this vindicates the debate by shining a clear light on a political fact. That is what a debate is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make clear the elements of one’s character and where they stand on important issues. During his introduction, Obama remarked:

It’s only through the process of disagreement and debate that bad ideas get tossed out and good ideas get refined and made better. And that kind of vigorous back and forth — that imperfect but well-founded process, messy as it often is — is at the heart of our democracy.

Well put Mr. President, but your sentiments have gone totally unfulfilled since then.

Earlier this year, President Obama met with the House Republican leadership. This meeting was not televised. Instead of specifics, we heard the usual boring, generic statements made to the press. “There are areas that we are going to disagree about, but I think all of us know that there are some issues that we can work on together”- John Boehner. You don’t say. Similar fluff followed from the White House and the rest of the Republican leadership. We didn’t get to hear the arguments or possible deals that could be made, but at least we got to hear about what they ate! Fantastic! (Salad, salmon, and rice apparently)

The Q&A in Baltimore made such an impression on me that I began looking elsewhere for something similar. One day while flipping through the channels, I stumbled on an episode of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ’s). PMQ’s is a weekly session held in the House of Commons at the seat of the UK government in Westminster. During each half-hour session, the Prime Minister answers questions from members of parliament, including six questions from the leader of the opposition. Unlike the structure of our own House and Senate, the House of Commons and the House of Lords is built with the government and opposition benches directly facing one another. From the moment I tuned in, I was fascinated. It stunned me how direct and confrontational the debate was. Actually, all debates in the Commons are held in a similar way, just not always with the PM as its head. At the time, Gordon Brown was still the Prime Minister with David Cameron as the Leader of the Opposition. Back and forth, the two men debated from across the dispatch box. Despite all the heckling and smart aleck comments made on both sides, there was a good amount of substance to be found. I couldn’t help but think, “Wow, they really don’t mess around! We should have something like this!” I began watching the sessions each week and looked on with curiosity at the British General Election last year.

Most Brits I’ve spoken to think of PMQ’s as just a program where MP’s grab attention and try to humiliate the other side. Sure, much of it is political theater. Even so, I feel much more engaged by what I see in the British cinema than what’s playing down the street in Washington. PMQ’s has become a very raucous affair, but the questions and answers given (or yelled out) still contain more substance than what I usually hear out of American politicians. And unlike over here, when they jeer at each other, they at least remember to laugh. My point is more about the format, where MP’s can ask the Prime Minister questions, albeit formally through the speaker. Most of the other debates I’ve watched in the House are much calmer, as they deal with more specific topics. Earlier this year I watched the debate on the UN Resolution to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. I thought David Cameron made a good case and answered the questions to him very clearly. Moreover I thought: “Obama needs to do this!”

So, consider this. Why don’t we find some space in Washington (if there is any) for a new chamber? We can put 2 series of benches facing one another to use for Q&A sessions. We could call it “President’s Question Time” or something similar. Once a month, there would be a session where the President sits with the members of his cabinet and the Congressional membership of his party. Across from him will be the leaders and members of the opposing party. Each session should last about an hour, to make for a timely discussion, rather than the agonizing crawl of last year’s health care summit. The President would answer questions both from the opposition and his own party. As for the direct leadership exchange, perhaps the Senate and House leaders should take turns every other month. In the current case, Eric Cantor would ask 6 questions one month, and Mitch McConnell would do so the next month. As Speaker of the House, John Boehner would moderate the sessions. If he felt unsure about it the first time, we could enlist the help of our friends in Britain. I’m sure John Bercow could use a vacation at our expense, so why not? The real difficulty comes with how to get the politicians to agree to do it. I understand how hard this would be, but I offer the idea for what it’s worth.

The debates would probably feel a bit awkward at first. In a recent interview, David Cameron noted that he is most anxious just before PMQ’s. I imagine the debate would have the same effect on our own politicians. Good, they should feel anxious. If we push the contentious feelings of hostility and anger into the framework of vigorous debate, maybe this will open the door for civility elsewhere. Before we can “all just get along”, we need to be clear about our differences, and be willing to broach them.

When addressing the problems of political language, George Orwell once wrote, “One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits”. Let me be clear, I am not saying that the adoption of Question Time sessions would solve every problem in American politics. Neither would it immediately resolve the budget crises, but that’s not the point. The point is to bring about a shift in habits and an evolution of our discourse. There is no harm in trying to form a rational synthesis between our culture and that of the UK. After all, it was only a year ago that Britain adopted American-style debates between the leaders of the three major parties. The three of them even sought advice from American politicians. If they can borrow from us, why don’t we borrow from them? Torn from the gutter of our prevailing political culture, politicians should be forced to defend their positions, under the gaze of both a determined opposition and a politically engaged public.

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