In the short term, it is the legislation currently before Congress that will matter most: how lawmakers change the ways Americans pay for health care; whether the federal government is able to stimulate the creation of new jobs or prevent further losses; how far the U.S. is willing to go in emission-reduction. Each of these issues is contentious and each contemplated action -- or inaction -- will have consequences that are not trivial. So how is it that if one were asked to choose which is the most important issue of the day, the correct answer would be "none of the above"?
Because democracy is not about policy but about process. Policies will change over time, and they will continue to be hotly debated, but what must remain constant is the process by which we come to decisions: not only the separation of powers and the various empowerments and constraints that delineate government's role, but the assurance that the citizen's voice will be given the most serious consideration.
If the United States is indeed "exceptional", it is not because we are full of citizens who are better than other people, but rather it is because we operate differently. Abraham Lincoln summed it up perfectly when he described our Madisonian system of lawmaking as government not only "for" the public good but also, and central to our form of government, "of" and "by" the people. Unlike members of many parliaments, those who make our national laws are required by the Constitution to be residents of the state whose constituents they have been elected to represent. It is clear, then, that when members of Congress cast their votes on the issues before them, they are to be guided by the concerns and preferences of those they represent, within the boundaries of constitutional authority, and subject to critical evaluation of the proposals being considered.
And it is the prevalence of just such an "intrusion", with its deleterious effects on citizen government, that is, in the long term, the single most important political issue of the day.
That intrusive force--skewing outcomes, diminishing the quality of legislative deliberation, reducing the impact of citizen preference, rendering necessary compromise difficult to impossible--is the modern American political party.
There is no major issue on the legislative table that cannot properly call forth rational argument either in its favor or in opposition. If members of Congress were applying the constitutional formula--analyzing the merits of the proposals (the Constitution envisions an adult Congress, with age requirements for both the House and Senate), considering the concerns of constituents (the residency requirement) and operating within the confines of constitutional permissiveness--it is unfathomable that a legislature of more than 500 men and women would not find some in either, or any, party that would differ in its conclusions from others of the same party.
Now throw in the modern preoccupation with party-line voting in which all, or almost all, of the members of one party find themselves aligned on a regular basis against all, or almost all, of the members of the other party -- a homogeneity that defies any logical expectation if 500 individuals, from diverse legislative communities, were applying individual analysis to the problems at hand and proposed solutions. One joins Party A or Party B out of a general sense of ideological kinship, but even so, one would rationally anticipate a greater degree of voting diversity than we get in today's party-first legislative system.
Neither the issue nor the proposals seem to dent this party loyalty. Whether one is considering government stimulus packages to address an ongoing recession, confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee, federal involvement in the private marketplace, changes in health care insurance system, or almost any other significant piece of legislation, one can now anticipate that Democrats, with few exceptions, will be on one side, and Republicans will almost unanimously be on the other side. Writing in "Roll Call," Norman Ornstein, one of America's leading congressional scholars, complained that "it is both dysfunctional and in the end tragic to see so many partisans in the system try to force the parliamentary square peg into the American constitutional round hole."
America's Founders understood that there would be dissent and conflict over legislation. In fact, they encouraged it because it is debate, not consensus, that is the hallmark of a viable democracy. But disagreement would be the natural outcome of mature individuals, representing differing constituencies, carrying diverse opinions and experiences into the public debate. That such serious and thoughtful consideration would be cut off by the jockeying for power by rival private clubs was Madison's nightmare (to quote the title of a book by Peter Shane) and is today's reality.
If the Congress raises taxes, a future Congress may lower them; if benefits are provided at one level, benefit levels may be altered; if government intrudes, it may later withdraw and if it chooses not to intrude, it may reverse the decision later. Policies ebb and flow, come and go, diminish and grow. But if we lose the system of citizen lawmakers applying their individual minds to the problems at hand and continue instead to make national policy based on narrow partisan advantage, the freedoms we lose may never be regained; self-government is a fragile thing and its survival is more important by far than any single issue of the moment.
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