Event Review: Is Government Broken?

by Carrots and Sticks intern William Schoell; edited by Jeremy

On Tuesday June 1st, the Brookings Institution held a seminar discussing one the fastest growing problems in American politics today. The American public, in particular 86% of it according to a recent study, feels that their government is not functioning for them, that it is “broken.”  By broken, the speakers meant that Americans feel as if their voice is not heard in government while lobbyists, special interest and big time donors have all the power.  Also by broken they implied that there is a growing generalized distrust of government amongst the public and vice versa.  During this seminar the audience heard from a bevy of speakers including White House ethics consultant Norm Eisen, professors, and advocacy and non-profit group leaders.  Although at times the seminar seemed to lack a consistent message, it was encouraging to hear many powerful minds discuss one of the more unflattering problems facing this country today.

The first panel focused on election reforms that could possibly help cure this problem.  By reforming elections, a positive change will (hopefully) come about in the method and frequency in which Americans exercise their political voices.  Various reforms were discussed such as campaign finance reform, reaffirming an explicit right to vote in the Constitution and voter registration issues.  Nick Nyhart, President/CEO of Public Campaign, advocated for large sweeping change to the campaign finance system.  He said that large changes can better harness the anger in public to make it easier to get mass support for reform ideas.  He wants to see private donations be matched by public funding by four times the amount of private donations.  If a candidate accepts public money then he/she would be subjected to a limit of how much spending they can use during a campaign.  Although this is a popular notion within the public one should note that it may be hard to achieve this type of reform because the people that get elected are not going to be very willing to change the rules that got them to their powerful positions.  He did mention a bill along the lines of public campaign financing, the Fair Elections Now Act, that has been co-sponsored by over 150 House members and over 20 Senators.

Campaign finance reform was not the only reform discussed. Eddie Hailes, Managing Director for the Advancement Project would like to see felons who have paid the dues to society have the right to vote and also see an explicit right to vote in the Constitution.  Out of the 109 developed democracies in the world, the US is one of just 11 that do not guarantee an explicit constitutional right to vote.  In addition, Jon Greenbaum, Legal Director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, discussed ways to ease voter registration laws.  Voter registration rules are one of the key determinants of voter turnout; the easier it is to register to vote, the higher the turnout.  He advocated for all states to use election-day registration as nine states already do.  He also advocated for permanent in-state registration, so if one moves within a state they do not have to register to vote after their move. With further discussion and public action these thoughts can be transformed into actual results.  Hopefully, with these and other reforms, the public will start to feel as if their voice and vote mean something and as turnout grows, mutual trust between citizens and their elected officials can be reestablished.

The second panel was supposed to focus on governance reform, procedural rules Congress and the President must follow.  For the most part, however, the panel discussed ways in which the public should change and/or get involved.  One idea was to set up non-partisan funded public discourse arenas to bring about constructive discussion about the happenings in our government.  This is a great idea, to get the public involved in politics and get to a point where disagreement does not yield distrust.  But, the only real governance reform discussed there seemed to be about transparency laws.  Gary Bass, Executive Director of OMB Watch, called for laws that would require Congress to not only show where they Congress is spending tax dollars but also what they are being spent.  For example, listing $1 million given to a university is not sufficiency for Mr. Bass.  The specific programs that the money is being spent should also be provided to the public (for example $500,000 for a research program on comparing democracies in Europe and $500,000 for a project studying half lives or radioactive elements).  Mr. Bass called “information the lifeblood of democracy” and “transparency the heart of democracy”.  Calling for actual legislation requiring transparency might have been the only actual government rule change called for by the second panel which was to focus on governance reform.  Nevertheless, this call for transparency could indeed instill more trust in the public by helping to coax more honesty or at least less secrecy out of our elected officials.  Again this seminar provided no way of actually achieving this call for more transparency.  It is not worthless though, thinking about these reforms is the first step to achieving them.

The ideas offered in this forum are very interesting thoughts, and necessary in moving toward a more just society, but sadly there were no real details on how to achieve these goals.  To borrow from writer John Burroughs “The smallest deed is better than the greatest intention.”  These intentions are great but hopefully somewhere in the near future, seminars and speeches like these will provide some concrete means to achieve these goals of election reform.

Fact is, without massive and mobilized public support for election and governance reforms it will be impossible to change this government.  The elected officials will not be willing to change the rules that got them to their powerful jobs unless they face the threat of being voted out of office if they fail to act.  There may have been some disappointments from the Brookings Institute seminar, “Is Government Broken,” like a lack of discussion on ending or reforming the filibuster, but it did do one thing.  It discussed a major structural problem in American politics and starting a robust discussion is the first step in order to reform our broken government.

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