Opinion: U.S. badly needs political reforms

October 22, 2013


The U.S. government, which loves to lecture other countries on how to run their affairs, would do well to learn some lessons from other nations in order to avoid a repeat of last week’s costly — and embarrassing — government shutdown.

I know this is anathema to the right-wing tea party legislators who shut down the government and almost caused a U.S. debt default in their crusade to destroy President Obama’s health care law, but Washington could even get some valuable lessons from Mexico, the country that the tea party extremists love to hate.

Much like the United States, Mexico had faced a seemingly terminal political paralysis that kept it from passing any meaningful laws for many years.

In Mexico’s case, it was because the country has a three-party political system, in which all government-backed initiatives were systematically shot down by the two parties that happened to be in the opposition. Governments changed hands, but the two-against-one system kept the country paralyzed.

Then, in December 2012, under pressure from an increasingly frustrated public, Mexico’s three major political parties signed the Pact for Mexico, a 95-point deal to break congressional gridlock and approve several key reforms.

Among the Pact’s biggest goals were passing long-delayed education, telecommunications, fiscal and energy reforms. Since then, Mexico has already passed ground-breaking education and telecom reforms, and its lower house of Congress last week approved a much debated fiscal reform.

Granted, the Pact for Mexico has a long way to go, and many don’t like some of its results so far. There is even speculation that it may collapse when the time comes to vote on the politically explosive, government-backed energy reform.

But even if the Pact for Mexico died today, it will already have accomplished much more than what the U.S. Congress has done in recent years, which is basically nothing.

Last week’s U.S. agreement to reopen the government, while bringing a universal sigh of relief, only kicked the problem forward until a new deadline of Jan. 15 for funding the government.

Like other countries before it, the United States may badly need a Mexico-style political agreement, or, if that doesn’t work — and it very possibly wouldn’t — an even more dramatic political reform.

The country has a structural political problem: U.S. presidential and congressional election rules have degenerated into a system that rewards extremism and discourages compromise.

Under the current system of presidential primaries, for instance, Republicans start their presidential candidate’s selection process in Iowa, where a relatively small population of ultra-conservative voters drives all Republican hopefuls to swing sharply to the right. Why not hold primaries across the country on the same day, so as to make them more geographically representative?

Also, under the current system of congressional elections, thanks to a process known as gerrymandering — whereby Republican or Democratic-run states have carved their congressional districts to protect incumbents — most congressional districts are overwhelmingly Republican, or Democratic.

As a result, there is little political competition between the two parties for most seats in Congress, which gives extremists — who tend to be the most politically active people in their districts — extraordinary power. Why not redesign congressional districts to restore some genuine competition?

Former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, one of the smartest political analysts I know, told me in a telephone conversation that Washington may need a radical political reform along the lines of Spain’s 1977 Moncloa Pact.

“In Spain, the outgoing Congress committed hara-kiri, and gave the next Congress the power to make constitutional changes to carry out political reforms,” Lagos said.

In the U.S. case, Congress could either do that, or appoint an independent, high-level commission to redesign electoral districts and to create a system of simultaneous nationwide primaries, he said.

“Two hundred years from now, historians may look at last week’s government shutdown as the beginning of the end of the United States,” Lagos told me. “Unless there is a political reform, we are going to see the same sorry spectacle on Jan. 15.”

My opinion: I fully agree, especially with the suggestion that the current Congress should commit hara-kiri. Contrary to conventional wisdom, last week’s government shutdown wasn’t a personality issue of a few deranged legislators, but a deeper problem of voting rules that help elect zealots.

Unless Washington signs a Mexico-style political pact or comes up with another solution to fix its primary and congressional election rules, I’m afraid we will see a new crisis on Jan. 15, and many others thereafter.

— Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for The Miami Herald.


Kevin Groenhagen 1 year, 5 months ago

There goes that "extremist" talk again from another left-winger.

There are extremists in the U.S. Congress in the form of the 80 or so members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which is aligned with the Democratic Socialists of America. DSA is part of the Socialist International, whose roots go back to Karl Marx. Of course, Marxism is incompatible with the U.S. Constitution, which CPC members took an oath to serve and protect.

The Tea Party members stand up against socialism, which is foreign to our political system and culture, and should be applauded for taking their oaths to the Constitution seriously.

Kevin Groenhagen 1 year, 5 months ago

How is it a conspiracy term? Chris Riddiough, the DSA political director in 1997, clearly noted that the CPC is a "socialist caucus": "DSA goals by 2017 include: a U.S. President from the Progressive Caucus, a 50 member socialist caucus in Congress, successful programs of the likes of universal health care, progressive taxation, social provision and campaign finance reform." http://www.chicagodsa.org/ngarchive/ng51.html

DSA also includes this Q & A on its website:

Q: Aren't you a party that's in competition with the Democratic Party for votes and support?

No, we are not a separate party. Like our friends and allies in the feminist, labor, civil rights, religious, and community organizing movements, many of us have been active in the Democratic Party. We work with those movements to strengthen the party’s left wing, represented by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. http://www.dsausa.org/pdf/widemsoc.pdf

Note that CPC's webpage was originally hosted by DSA until the late Balint Vazsonyi exposed that fact 15 years ago.

Riddiough continues to serve as a DSA official. She was an initial signer of Progressives for Obama (now Progressive America Rising). http://progressivesforobama.blogspot.com

There is also a photo of Riddiough on Photobucket celebrating Obama’s inauguration in 2009. http://s618.photobucket.com/user/CRiddiough/media/CR_Inauguration.jpg.html

As far as the $20-24 billion figure, it's largely bogus. Even if true, it would be a fraction of what the Obama admin wasted on the Obamacare website.

I don't receive Social Security and you're violating the spirit of the J-W's new rules concerning commenting here.

Kevin Groenhagen 1 year, 5 months ago

And, of course, Marley Schauzer is an actual person's name.

Seth Peterson 1 year, 5 months ago

And of course, you have actual thoughts, not just rhetorical conspiracy-based talking points without any foundation in reality

Kevin Groenhagen 1 year, 5 months ago

Seth, if you think you can disprove anything I have written above, I invite you to do so. I shared documentation to back up my points. I would love for you to provide documentation that shows I am wrong. However, given your track record here, it does not appear that you can offer anything other than insults and snarky comments.

Seth Peterson 1 year, 5 months ago

Fortunately I don't have to do much else to maintain the same level of discourse you use. Many posters, myself included, have repeatedly pointed out misinformation you provide, corrected your data, explained where you have been wrong on some issues and ignore the lot.

The next thread along and you're parroting the same swill again. Pointing out that you do this isn't an insult, it's an observation.

Let's not forget you generally don't post 'facts', but your opinions and misinformation for example, your first post from your first comment here is:

"There goes that "extremist" talk again from another left-winger."

No facts, no information, just another insult and snarky comment from someone who glances at talking points. Clearly you don't think about anything you say and you have zero interest in learning. You're here to troll, and should be treated as such. You're claims about my comments, like your claims about so many others is pure projection on your part.

So many have pointed out this irony, and have referred to your double standard on a daily basis that there is no reason for any of us to take you seriously or comment with anything that can be taken seriously, because you shouldn't be.

Kevin Groenhagen 1 year, 5 months ago

A little challenger for you Seth: Give us a specific example of where I have provided misinformation anywhere her on the J-W forums. Merely asserting that I provided misinformation does not make it so.

" You're here to troll, and should be treated as such."

Interesting comment when you consider that you have accused me of projecting.

Kevin Groenhagen 1 year, 5 months ago

You're merely repeating what Seth wrote. And. like Seth, you failed to back up your claim with any examples. Share with us a specific example of where I have misrepresented the facts.

As far as name-calling, I note that it was you that sent me a message through Facebook that included a racist comment concerning Asians. I would request that your comments directed to me be limited to this forum in the future.

Kevin Groenhagen 1 year, 5 months ago

You're digging a deeper hole for yourself.

Seth Peterson 1 year, 5 months ago

I would have you read through the comments above and below - this has been done no less that 5 times in this thread alone.

Kevin Groenhagen 1 year, 5 months ago

If you think there is nothing wrong with the goals of the socialists, why won't the socialists in the CPC come out and admit that they are socialists? Thus far, Bernie Sanders is the only one to have done so.

"By the way, working with members in Congress does not entail those 80 or so Congressmen = DSA members."

And I never made that claim, although there are CPC members who are DSAers. Danny Davis and Jan Shadowsky (sp?) of Illinois are just two examples.

"I also saw some Republicans clapping during his inaugeration [sic]. That must mean those Republicans = socialists."

Show us a Republican who was wearing an Obama sweatshirt and hugging an Obama poster, as Riddiough was doing. Did any Republican join Progressives for Obama, as Riddiough did?

"I've got no argument regarding the website - an initial failure to be certain, but there's plenty of time to correct."

I think you missed the fact that the website was supposed to be fully operational on October 1. That's what Obama the Unready and Sebelius promised.

"Can you be more specific?"

Is your actual name Mropus Wan?

Kevin Groenhagen 1 year, 5 months ago

Yes and, unlike Mropus Wan, my Facebook account was not opened just 3 hours ago.

Kevin Groenhagen 1 year, 5 months ago

"You directly implied..."

Directly implied?

Chris Riddiough, DSA's political director in 1997, explicitly stated that the CPC was the "socialist caucus" in Congress? Do you believe she was engaging in McCarthyism? Do you believe she misspoke when she characterized the CPC as the "socialist caucus" in Congress? If so, why has no CPC member corrected the record? They have had 16 years and numerous occasions to do so, especially when they attended DSA events to accept awards or serve as keynote speakers.

"The guy wanted Obama to win - he's hugging a poster while wearing an Obama shirt."

I can understand your confusion here. Chris is a gender neutral name. However, Chris Riddiough is a woman.

Are you aware of the fact that Obama ran for the state senate in Illinois in 1996 as a fusion Democrat/New Party candidate? The DSA in Chicago helped set up the New Party there.According to the Chicago DSA's newsletter, "Although ACORN and SEIU Local 880 were the harbingers of the NP there was a strong presence of CoC and DSA (15% DSA)." "CoC" is the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, which is a Communist Party USA breakaway group.


Kevin Groenhagen 1 year, 5 months ago

"They've been paying attention this time, and you changing the subject to your tin foil hat theories of Obama being a Communist dictator doesn't hold muster. Sorry, sir."

I never said Obama was a communist. However, the record is clear that his policies place him comfortably within the classification of a democratic socialist.

I'm going to keep my responses to you pithy from here on out since I believe your bogus account will soon be deleted.

Julius Nolan 1 year, 5 months ago

Kevin, can you or would you for once provide links or proof that is not from total fringe groups sites. You know, real verifiable backup data? From legitimate non-partisan sources?

Kevin Groenhagen 1 year, 5 months ago

So you have a problem with me making my points about the DSA by providing links to DSA websites? Okay.

Seth Peterson 1 year, 5 months ago

No, he won't. This is why he should be ignored.

Kevin Groenhagen 1 year, 5 months ago

Chris Riddiough, DSA's political director in 1997, explicitly stated that the CPC was the "socialist caucus" in Congress. Do you believe she misspoke when she characterized the CPC as the "socialist caucus" in Congress? If so, why has no CPC member corrected the record? They have had 16 years and numerous occasions to do so, especially when they attended DSA events to accept awards or serve as keynote speakers.

When former Klansman David Duke announced that he would run for federal office as a Republican, RNC Chairman Jim Nichols promptly said that the GOP would have nothing to do with Duke. If the CPC is not aligned with DSA, one would think that the CPC would make an announcement to deny DSA's claims. Then again, the Senate Democrats did make Robert Byrd, another former Klansman, their majority leader. Perhaps Democrats are more tolerant of extremists.

Kevin Groenhagen 1 year, 5 months ago

Byrd used the "N" word on national television just a few years before he died. Obviously, he still had racist attitudes.

With the exception of Strom Thurmond, who switched to the GOP to support Goldwater in 1964, name one Dixiecrat in the Senate in 1964 who later switched from the Democrat Party to the GOP. I can save you some time and tell you that Gore, Fulbright, Byrd, Hollings, etc., died as liberal Democrats.

Kevin Groenhagen 1 year, 5 months ago

You didn't answer my questions. Obviously, that's because you can't.

Seth Peterson 1 year, 5 months ago

. . . and the irony ring wraps itself a little tighter. Absence of proof, proving the false, feeding the self-delusion, verifying the fake-reality that is the truth and no one else sees. (obviously, because they can't).

Kevin Groenhagen 1 year, 5 months ago

Here are those questions again:

Chris Riddiough, DSA's political director in 1997, explicitly stated that the CPC was the "socialist caucus" in Congress. This was after she met with CPC to see how the two groups could work together. Do you believe she misspoke when she characterized the CPC as the "socialist caucus" in Congress? If so, why has no CPC member corrected the record? They have had 16 years and numerous occasions to do so, especially when they attended DSA events to accept awards or serve as keynote speakers.

Now, just in case you believe I am making up those claims, here is a link to the Chicago DSA website, which includes an item about CPC co-chair Rep. Jan Schakowsky addressing the 53rd Debs Thomas Harrington Dinner in 2011. http://www.chicagodsa.org/d2011/index.html

She was the featured speaker at the same annual dinner in 2004: http://www.chicagodsa.org/dthdin.html

Now if a GOP congressman had addressed a, say, John Birch Society dinner, how do you think Democrats and the media would have reacted?

Ron Holzwarth 1 year, 5 months ago

Political parties are not mentioned at all in the Constitution, and are certainly not necessary for the government to function.

"However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion."

  • George Washington, Farewell Address, Sep. 17, 1796

1 year, 5 months ago

The Shutdown Kabuki Theatre merely closed a few parks and gave some White House gardeners a (paid) vacation. NSA was still taking your calls, we were still bombing Asia and Africa, and the Congressional gym was still open. Nor was there any danger of default, as the government takes in 10x in taxes what it needs to pay interest. Default then, just like today, is purely voluntary.

The author is correct about one thing: the problem was merely kicked forward. But the problem is not the debt ceiling, it's the debt. As Washington also wrote, "To contract new debts is not the way to pay old ones," and that we should avoid "ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burthen [of debt], which we ourselves ought to bear."

So long as we are borrowing to pay our debts, ungenerously throwing upon the next generation what we ought to pay today, we are not dealing with the problem. We are still looting our children, no matter how smoothly the politicians get along.

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