At the national level, American politics has become neurotically democratic. Politicians are campaigning all the time and can scarcely think beyond the news cycle. Legislators are terrified of offending this or that industry lobby, activist group or donor faction. Unrepresentative groups have disproportionate power in primary elections. The quickest way around all this is to use elite Simpson-Bowles-type commissions to push populist reforms. The process of change would be unapologetically elitist. Gather small groups of the great and the good together to hammer out bipartisan reforms -- on immigration, entitlement reform, a social mobility agenda, etc. -- and then rally establishment opinion to browbeat the plans through.
David Brooks made a provocative argument yesterday, insisting that we have too much democracy at the national level. He presented his vision for what he sees as a more constructive approach.
What kind of plans? The New York Times columnist didn't specify, exactly, though presumably the "small groups" of elites would come up with solutions endorsed by "the great and the good" -- people like David Brooks.
I can appreciate the frustration that prompts suggestions like these. When the American policymaking process breaks down, and we see other countries moving more effectively to advance their interests, it's tempting to start thinking anew about alternatives. "Congress is no longer capable of governing?" the thinking goes. "Then maybe a series of commissions can do what the legislative process cannot."
However tempting the alternative vision might be, however, it's worth appreciating all of the many ways Brooks is mistaken and why, to use Paul Krugman's phrase, it's important to resist the "madness of commissions."
Right off the bat, note that Brooks' fascination with Simpson-Bowles -- this week was the 11th time the columnist has written about the bipartisan deficit-reduction commission in the last two years -- is misguided. Simpson-Bowles not only produced a deeply flawed policy blueprint, this commission also failed to persuade its own members -- Republican members of the Simpson-Bowles panel refused to endorse the conclusions. The commission, such as it was, failed at its most basic task: reaching an agreement.
To see this as a model for future policymaking is to overlook its own record.
Digging deeper, Brooks sees a landscape in which sound judgment in policymaking is practically impossible because of politicians excessively pandering. But as Krugman noted, that's not really what's happened of late: "In both America and Europe, budget deficits have clearly come down too fast, perpetuating the slump while probably if anything worsening the long-run fiscal outlook. If there was pandering going on here, it was a case of pandering to elite deficit obsessions, not popular desire for a good time."
But on a more fundamental level, I'd encourage Brooks and those who found his column persuasive to consider what we already have at an institutional level. Let's say, hypothetically, that there was a broad consensus to follow Brooks' preferred course. Indeed, let's say we wanted "commissions" of competent, respected policymakers to get together, identify public needs, and work together toward solutions with a sense of shared purpose.
To a very real degree, that's how some might describe Congress, at least on a conceptual level. Americans are asked to choose responsible policymakers, who work with other chosen policymakers, usually in small groups called "committees." They're tasked with asking the right questions and finding the right answers.
It's failing right now, not necessarily because of the flawed structure (though obstacles like filibuster abuses weaken the foundations of these structures), but because a lot of Americans have chosen a lot of poor officials to act in their name. The answer isn't to replace the system, it's to replace those who won't allow the system to work as it should.
Brooks mentioned immigration reform, for example. In this case, there was no "Simpson-Bowles-type commission"; there was simply the existing American process of governing. The White House urged lawmakers to act; a bipartisan group of senators reached a compromise; stakeholders endorsed that compromise; the public rallied behind the proposal; and if given an up-or-down vote, it could probably pass the House.
So who needs a commission? If the goal is responsible policymaking, the nation needs 218 votes in the House of Representatives and a responsible House majority leadership.
Does Brooks have any ideas on where we might find one?