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.