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 3 years, 9 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.

Mropus Wan 3 years, 9 months ago

The Tea Party members just cost our government around $20-24 billion with their shutdown. I'm sorry, but I don't applaud this wasteful spending debacle they deliberately created in efforts to stop a law that was upheld by the Supreme Court.

You can throw around Limbaugh/Beck conspiracy terms like "Socialism" all you like, and please kindly turn in your Social Security payments while you're at it, it does very little to draw anyone who doesn't have a Right Wing extremist, tin foil hat to your cause. The majority of Americans correctly saw who was truly damaging our country as of late (and here's a big hint: it wasn't those darn, crazy "Socialists").

Kevin Groenhagen 3 years, 9 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.

Marley Schnauzer 3 years, 9 months ago

Think maybe some people really are violating the posting rules, just not sure that he is.

Kevin Groenhagen 3 years, 9 months ago

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

Seth Peterson 3 years, 9 months ago

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

Seth Peterson 3 years, 9 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.

Seth Peterson 3 years, 8 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.

Julius Nolan 3 years, 9 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?

Seth Peterson 3 years, 9 months ago

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

Seth Peterson 3 years, 9 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).

Ron Holzwarth 3 years, 9 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

Paul R Getto 3 years, 9 months ago

Five regional open primary dates should do it. Run one each month. Cancel all TV debates as they are worthless.

3 years, 9 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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