To the Members of the 112th Congress:
Progressives originally wanted more democracy; now they’d like less of it, if you don't mind.
We have had occasion in these letters to mention President Obama's former director of the Office of Management and Budget, Peter Orszag. Orszag left the administration last year for the more lucrative position of Citigroup's vice chairman of global banking.
During moments of leisure from tightening the shackles forged by international capitalism, Orszag enjoys writing articles in his capacity as an adjunct senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations. We know of nothing that will oblige our grandchildren to remember Mr. Orszag, but we call him to your attention because in a recent article he has had the candor to express openly a significant and troubling inclination of American progressives.
In his words, the time has come "to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic." The problem is not that our politicians are ignoring the views of the people who elect them, but that they reflect those views all too reliably. More and more Americans inhabit political cocoons, he writes. They get their news and opinions exclusively from congenial sources – Democrats watch MSNBC and Republicans watch Fox – and even reside in towns and counties that are vividly red or blue, rather than in the purple jurisdictions more common a generation ago.
The upshot is that elected representatives get to Congress and have no latitude to compromise, since their constituents demand absolute adherence to a rigid political ideology. The polarization and gridlock that result could be surmounted if the electorate broke decisively in one direction or the other, electing a president and congressional majorities committed to a common agenda and viewpoint. Democrats like Orszag wanted to believe that this was what happened in 2006 and 2008, but the 2010 midterm elections demonstrated that America remains, politically, a nation closely divided, one where neither party gets the upper hand in a decisive way for a prolonged period.
Believing that polarization is here to stay, Orszag wants to find a way for government to work despite it. Getting government to "work," however, sounds remarkably similar to getting it to enact the unimplemented parts of the Obama agenda. He cites the need for a climate change policy, and asserts that "virtually all responsible economists" agree with him that we need a bigger federal deficit for the next two years in order to stimulate the economy and lay the groundwork for policies that will reduce the deficit in conveniently distant decades.
Orszag is not the only Democrat disaffected from democracy. Governor Beverly Perdue of North Carolina recently suggested suspending congressional elections for two years as a way for voters to convey to congressmen that whatever decisions they make to effect economic recovery are ones "we won't hold … against them." The governor's spokeswoman hastened to insist that her boss was "obviously using hyperbole" to draw attention to the "serious problem" of "politicians who focus on their own election instead of what's best for the people they serve."
Well, it's good to be reassured that the banana-republic step of suspending the people's ability to hold the legislature to account does not appear to be a Democrat project, but isn't it a bit discouraging to see prominent members of that party holding the incapacity of the people to govern themselves to be a self-evident truth? To say that politicians face the mutually exclusive option of getting elected or doing what's best for the people means that the people are too ill-informed, short-sighted, or weak-minded to make wise governance an unassailable electoral advantage rather than a handicap.
Orszag is not using hyperbole, and his ideas about making our institutions "a bit" less democratic sound like they would leave them a lot less democratic. He wants the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), the central reform mechanism of Obamacare (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act), to be the new template for governance generally. Readers will recall that IPAB is, in Orszag's words, "an independent panel of medical experts" whose recommendations on controlling health care costs become law unless Congress and the president explicitly countermand them. According to Obamacare, Congress cannot dismantle IPAB, no matter how much the medical experts outrage mere citizens, except in the distant future and by following an elaborate procedure that has no authority in a Constitution that vests "all legislative powers" in the elected national legislature.
IPAB has not even come on line yet and Orszag is already so pleased with it as an improvement on representative democracy that he would like to see new, IPAB-like commissions empowered to set federal policy in such obscure and insignificant areas as infrastructure and taxation. He allows that government by commission would "reduce the power of elected officials and therefore make our government somewhat less accountable to voters." But, darn it, since no one else has "come up with a practical proposal" to "circumvent legislative gridlock," Orszag sees no alternative to turning all the important questions facing the government over to panels of experts, and keeping Congress around only to intercede if the commissions come up with measures the people absolutely deplore.
Orszag repudiates a straw man when he urges Americans "to jettison the Civics 101 fairy tale about pure representative democracy" and embrace government by commission. The logic of our constitutional system recognizes that while popular government can be rash, stubborn, or petty, any political architecture that protects against these tendencies by conferring autonomous power on a small minority purportedly blessed with exceptional wisdom or virtue sets up the temptation and probability of tyranny. Thus, the Constitution's goal is to secure "a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government," as Federalist 10 contended.
This Madisonian approach is certainly aware of the need for "experts" in a well governed republic, but it seeks to improve democracy by elevating and refining it. It creates a government in which all political power derives from and must answer to the people, but where the structure of the government and the national union is designed to give the nation every opportunity to embrace policies that are wise and not merely popular. Presidential elections, for example, are held every four years rather than every four months, so that a president has the constitutional space to make decisions that contradict the people's momentary preferences, but which might be vindicated in the months or years before the next election is scheduled.
Orszagian government, by contrast, seeks to improve upon democracy by constraining and circumventing it. It is based on the belief that the most acute problem with American government is that experts lack the power their expertise deserves. He advocates a constitutional system where rule by experts is the default option, saving us from having commissions whose recommendations "sit on a shelf collecting dust."
One reason to prefer Madison's solution to the problem of making democracy work over Orszag's is that it displays an astute sense that the abuse of power is an endemic political problem, one so old it's often rendered in Juvenal's Latin: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guardians themselves? If Orszag gets his way we will be forced to ask, where will we find the experts who know how to protect us from the experts?