So I kept reading:
A system with as many checks and balances
built into it as ours assumes -- indeed requires -- a certain minimum
level of cooperation on major issues between the two parties, despite
ideological differences. Unfortunately, since the end of the cold war,
which was a hugely powerful force compelling compromise between the
parties, several factors are combining to paralyze our whole system.
For starters, we've added more checks and balances to make
decision-making even more difficult -- such as senatorial holds now being
used to block any appointments by the executive branch or the Senate
filibuster rule, effectively requiring a 60-vote majority to pass any
major piece of legislation, rather than 51 votes.
There's something to this. The filibuster ought to be reformed. And nominees ought to get up or down votes. But is it true that "we've added more checks and balances to make
decision-making even more difficult"? As an unqualified summary of U.S. governance that's egregiously incomplete.
Since 9/11 the executive branch has dramatically expanded its assertions of unchecked power. For even longer, the trend in domestic affairs has been for presidents to do more and more with rule-making in the ever-expanding federal bureaucracy. And although you wouldn't know it from Friedman's column, post-Cold War congresses have passed landmark legislation including the Family Medical Leave Act, welfare reform, No Child Left Behind, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, the PATRIOT Act, creation of the Department of Homeland Security, permission to wage war in Iraq, huge tax cuts, Medicare Part D, and the Affordable Care Act.
For better and worse, significant change is possible.
Maybe we'd have made more progress addressing major problems if passing legislation were easier. But more restraints on government could've prevented the PATRIOT Act, the Iraq War, No Child Left Behind or the Bush tax cuts. Friedman focuses on legislation he'd like to see passed that isn't, and never grapples with legislation that passed and made us worse off. Given his one-sided analysis it's no wonder he thinks gridlock is the major problem that confronts America.
He also makes the common but ahistorical claim that "our political divisions have become more venomous than ever." More venomous than during the Civil War? Reconstruction? The McCarthy era?
...the Internet, the blogosphere and C-Span's coverage of the workings of
the House and Senate have made every lawmaker more transparent -- making
back-room deals by lawmakers less possible and public posturing the 24/7
Shouldn't this argument be qualified by the admission that the Bush and Obama Administrations have gone to unprecedented extremes cloaking themselves in executive privilege and state secrets? Friedman posits a plausible downside to a certain kind of transparency. But he totally ignores an increase in executive branch secrecy that is surely a defining trend of our era. It's directly tied to known abuses, from illegal spying on American citizens to torture to the waging of an undeclared drone war that Obama officials tout anonymously to reporters when it serves their interests, even as they hide behind its classified status when it doesn't.