The Allure of Reform and A Modest Proposal

September 20, 2016
posted by Bob Bauer

Matt Grossman and David A Hopkins have pronounced many decades of liberal reform to be a failure. In a new book, they argue that the 1970s reform program did not lead to the success of liberal policies but may have been primarily advantageous to “ideological Republicans.” For a party that is “a coalition of social groups, each with pragmatic policy concerns,” the Democrats wound up undermining the transactional politics among various interests that would produce their preferred policy outcomes. Making matters worse was a shift of voter sentiment against government-driven solutions. The Republicans, happy to oblige the popular sentiment by blocking legislation, fared better than Democrats actually interested in passing it. Grossman and Hopkins conclude that in the future, Democrats “should assess whether each potential change is likely to benefit the Democratic coalition or the more ideological Republicans.”

The problem always is the hazard of predicting the partisan or policy impact of any reform measure. To the extent that Grossman and Hopkins are urging Democrats to guess, they are necessarily allowing for the fairly large possibility that they will guess wrong. And even the ways in which they may be wrong are not anticipated all that reliably. In other words, both the benefits and the costs–the shape of success and the look of failure–will be very hard to judge. The mistakes made can be costly.

None of this would matter if those promoting reform could satisfy themselves that it satisfied other measures of success. For example, do those reforms enhance public confidence in the political process, or lessen the risk of corruption in government? Not so much, it seems, which is not to say that things would not be worse on this score without the reforms. But if it is true that reforms have contributed little to the success of the progressive policy agenda, the absence of other consolations, like a government that enjoys the public’s confidence, only compounds the sense of failure and dissatisfaction.

The Grossman/Hopkins argument tends to strengthen the case for targeted modest reforms that don’t rest on ambitious expectations about policy or partisan effects. Rather than each party trying to game which reforms will serve their particular interests, they might collaborate on purging the current regulatory system of its inanities, inconsistencies and inefficiencies.

The federal regulatory edifice as it now stands (or wobbles) is hard to defend. It yields little in the results that the drafters intended, while at the same time functioning at peak inefficiency in channeling resources toward effective, appropriately transparent political activity. Contrary to the standing conservative critiques, the regulatory “system” is not functionally oppressive. It is oppressively dysfunctional. Much of it does not make sense anymore, and what remains in theory sensible does not work in practice.

The Congress is divided over policy and the Supreme Court is split over the governing jurisprudence. So we are left with the Federal Election Commission to do the best it can. This is not working well, as the Commissioners would be the first to tell you.

Just last week, the FEC put on a sterling display of the paralysis gripping the federal regulatory process. It argued at length over whether it could even put out a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would identify options for tightening the restrictions on foreign national influence in elections. It appeared that the Republicans viewed this NPRM proposal as a stalking horse for getting around Citizens United. The Democrats saw Republican resistance as reflexive obstructionism. The Republicans countered with a proposal of their own, which left the law pretty much with it stands, and the Democratic side (two Democrats and the independent who generally votes with them) would not have any part of it.

So the public was treated to the spectacle of Commissioners fighting over a proposal to simply discuss ways of achieving an objective–preventing foreign national influence–that they supposedly all agree on. The meeting ended on a testy note, a 3-3 deadlock, and a tepidly expressed openness to continuing the discussion without any indication that further discussion would make a difference.

Right now we have the usual push to rebuild the reforms and to add to them as necessary (e.g. by adjusting for the perceived impact and future effects of Citizens United), and on the other, a commitment to blocking this initiative and to dismantling some of the results of the 1970’s reform program. Caught in between is the simple need in the electoral process for clarity, consistency, good sense, and predictability in the administration of the rules on the books. This would be a useful project, a constructive way to pass the time, while each party plots the next generation of reforms that will advance their electoral or policy prospects.

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