New Books Focus on Congressional Reforms

Posted May 16, 2012 at 3:20pm

There are two new books out that you should not wait until summer to read. They recommend pathways to undo political stalemate and avoid the decline of America, so they’re urgent business.

One is “We Can All Do Better” by former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), which sets out a broad agenda that includes tax and banking reform and investments in infrastructure, research and lifetime education.

But Bradley’s major priority is passing a constitutional amendment to get special interest money out of politics.

The other is “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” by scholars Norman Ornstein (a Roll Call contributor) and Thomas Mann, which calls for undoing the “asymmetric polarization” of American politics that blocks solving many of the country’s problems.

Their case is that polarization has given us ideologically pure parliamentary-style parties ill-suiting our constitutional system of checks and balances — and that the polarization is mainly the result of the Republican Party’s lurch to the far right.

They’re leery of Bradley’s proposals for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, public financing of political campaigns and creation of third parties to fight in Congressional elections.

But they have a bevy of less dramatic proposals for political reform — open primaries, making voting more convenient or even mandatory and limiting Senate filibusters — that deserve support.

Even if the two books have different ranges and contain some conflicting conclusions, they both amount to a call to arms for citizens and fair-minded politicians to get serious — really serious — about fixing the system.

To read Bradley’s book is to get mostly depressed about the magnitude of the country’s problems — “a deterioration of the middle-class standard of living, a weakened economy that needs to be stimulated [in the short run] and an unsustainable long-term deficit driven by inadequate revenues and explosive entitlement spending.”

There are also banks that are still “too big to fail” and getting bigger, “a mass media that champions the superficial, sensational and extreme views,” a China that is smartly buying influence around the world while the U.S. tries to win it with arms — and the political polarization that Ornstein and Mann decry.

Still, Bradley maintains that “America is like a championship team that has hit a slump” from which it can recover.

In a radio interview I did with him last week, he essentially called for a new Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson-style Progressive movement that would mount third-party candidacies for Congress starting in 2014 and agitate for public financing of political campaigns.

“You’d have been pessimistic in the 19th century when special interests bought state legislatures that sent lackeys to the Senate or if you lived in the South in the 1920s and faced segregation or if you lived in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and couldn’t see your hand because of the smoke. You’d have thought ‘this can never change,’” he said.

“But it did change and it can change. The challenge is for each of us to be at our best and elevate doing things for each other above doing things for yourself. It begins with one person.”

Bradley’s book contains the best concise analysis I’ve seen of the crash of 2008 and asserts that the “root of all evil” is the ability of special interests to buy the policies they want.

“A lobbyist will talk to you about a bill at 4:30 in the afternoon. He’ll often give you useful information. But then at 6:30, he’ll hold a fundraiser and hand you a check for $10,000.”

Ornstein and Mann favor barring lobbyists from making campaign contributions, but they don’t think public financing will ever fly with the public.

For them, the root of evil is that “one of the two major political parties, the Republican Party, has become an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

They say that Democrats “have become the more status quo oriented, centrist protectors of government, willing to revamp programs and trim entitlements and health benefits. … And rank-and-file Democrats (along with self-identified Independents) favor compromise to solve problems over deadlock.”

Mann and Ornstein urge the mainstream media to call out the Republicans.

I agree with them that the tea party and its allies have pulled the GOP far, far to the right — as evidenced its absolute refusal to support revenue increases even to avoid a government default on its debt.

But I’d put more blame than they do on Democrats — for instance, President Barack Obama’s failure to embrace his own debt commission’s recommendations and his reliance on government to solve every problem.

Still, the burden of both of these books is correct: America needs political reform to secure economic revitalization. And to secure political reform, we need a citizens’ reform movement of the progressive center to match the energy of the tea party on the right. Starting soon — before it’s too late.