Monday, January 14, 2013

Who killed representative government?


By Bill Kraus

I am reminded of an Agatha Christie book and movie called Murder on the Orient Express in which the redoubtable Poirot finds that an execution was the work of not a single culprit/suspect but all of them.

The difference is that representative government is not dead yet or doesn’t know it is.

The suspects are a combination of outside people and forces and the legislature itself. The death when it comes will be a combination murder suicide.

Suspect 1

Populists came along early and often. Even Wisconsin’s beloved Fighting Bob wanted us to have initiative and referendum and no fault recall so we could impose agenda items and punish representatives who voted in ways we didn’t like. It’s an open question whether these are attempts to get a town hall government or a way to protect the people from the people they voted into office. Doesn’t matter. What this has turned into is a field day for public relations big spenders who can work their will an issue or an incumbent at a time without waiting for the next election. The most extreme example is California where conflicting referendums and other zaniness threaten to make representative government unworkable.

A milder form of populist intrusion is something called TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) which puts a lid on how much the people we elected to govern can tax us to do the job we elected them to. It is said to work in Colorado. It is doubtful that the founding fathers figured this kind of hobbling.

Suspect 2

Widespread distrust, disgust, disparagement of the sitting incumbents are high and rising. The most extreme manifestation of this antipathy is fear of the governing class. There are second-amendment fanatics who seem to be worried about an evil government and its armies overthrowing the representative system unless the populace is armed to the teeth so we can fight back when this happens. After 230 years? Really?

Suspect 3

Single-issue forces, big and small on single issues that are also big and small, are pretty much at the table with our representatives, who more and more rely on the money and support they need from the single-issue zealots to continue to win the right to represent us. The more money they have, the more members they have, the louder their whispers into the representatives’ ears will be. Beholdenism is inevitable in politics, which is more about special than general interests than we like to think. The phenomenon begins to undermine representative government when the voters feel that their representatives are no longer representing them; that their first loyalties are elsewhere. Representative government which is neither trusted or which those being represented no longer believe in, like Lincoln’s famous house divided, cannot long stand.

Suspect 4

The rise of extremists and the devolution of power to legislative leaders can be attributed to many things, most of which have to do with the esoterics of gerrymandering and the power vacuum that was created when the well meaning reformers of the Watergate era decided to declaw the political parties.

The result has been that representatives now pick their voters rather than vice versa and those voters really choose their representatives in primary elections where the doctrinaire and the billionaire bullies hold sway due in large measure to a voter indolence and indifference which the founding fathers couldn’t have anticipated.

Suspect 5

The legislative process itself, with arcane rules about super majorities, majorities within majorities (where an idea that doesn’t have a majority in the majority caucus it doesn’t see the light of legislative day), and even filibusters, seems to many to be more important to the people we elected than creating a consensus on the role of government in our society and building a government that works.

A lot of the representative-government-killer suspects can be deflected and cleared by the incumbents and their leaders themselves. If they are not they risk radical reactions by an increasingly unhappy and unrepresented public.

The procrustean bed of term limits looms, as does part-timing the legislators’ sessions and jobs as the current uprising in Milwaukee, where the fulltime county board is under attack, to what seems to be the approval, even delight, of a distrusting, disparaging, disgusted public.

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