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Government needs a big shove 51765Government needs a big shove

Bill Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution where he holds the Ezra Zilkha Chair in governance studies. Galston is a former fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former deputy assistant to President Clinton on domestic policy. He is also a founding member of No Labels, the grassroots movement of 600,000 Republicans, Democrats and Independents working to break the gridlock in Washington, DC.

December 20, 2012

6 Min Read
Government needs a big shove

nbj: How did you come to No Labels?
Bill Galston: I came to No Labels at roughly the same time and for roughly the same reasons as a lot of other people did. Namely, that the polarization of American politics had created a situation in which it was increasingly difficult for the political system to get even the basics done, and this situation was beginning to cost our country very significantly, both in reputational and real terms.

The most famous episode of dysfunction would be, of course, the stand-off over the debt ceiling that nearly sent us into default. That had a significant impact on our international reputation for economic management and prudence of government, and it contributed to our first-ever downgrade of U.S. debt. That’s just one example. The list of major legislation—much of it quite routine—stalled in recent years is a very long one.

nbj: Is this a third-party movement?
BG: We are not going to become a new political party. American politics is structured around the two-party system. The founders didn’t plan it that way and they didn’t want it that way, but the basic logic of the constitution they drafted led us quickly to a two-party system and that’s essentially where we have been ever since.

We believe at No Labels that the first and most essential step to regaining a governable country is to change the way the two political parties relate to each other. We can’t just lift off vertically and hover over this stand-off. We don’t have that luxury. Nobody does. We have to roll up our sleeves as a tri-partisan organization and do our best to make the party system that we have—and the party system that we will continue to have—work better than it has in quite some time.

nbj: How’s the progress so far?
BG: We’ve mobilized a citizen army from a standing start less than two years ago. We now have about 600,000 members in all 50 states and, as far as we know it, in all 435 congressional districts. We have thousands of citizen leaders identified, and if you don’t think the identification of local leaders makes a difference, check in with Mitt Romney right now.

We have an increasing number of sympathizers among elected officials and candidates for office, and, finally, we have a serious reform agenda that we are trying to promote—very specific proposals such as ‘No Budget, No Pay’ directed to both Congress and the White House.

nbj: Whether we talk about food or politics—any social fabric, really—there seems to be so much discontent among citizens. The systems as they exist are butting heads all the time. We’re not getting anywhere.
BG: That’s exactly right—butting heads and not getting anywhere is a terse description of the reality we now face but I think it is substantially true and people have been sick and tired of it for quite some time. There is a lot of survey evidence to that effect, but it isn’t until relatively recently that I think people have begun to realize that the system is now locked into a dysfunctional equilibrium that we may not be able to escape from unless it’s given a shove. Only the people can give it that shove, which is why we are trying to organize the people.

nbj: Where do you see evidence of this dysfunction?
BG: You can certainly look at it from the standpoint of public opinion and there, I don’t even have to start to make the case because the case makes itself. If you look at standard measures—how people feel about the institutions of the country, trust in government overall—these are close to record low levels. You can also look more objectively at the ability of the President and Congress to get the business of government done and you’re led to the same conclusion.

People are unhappy about the way government is functioning because, objectively, it is not functioning very well. One measure of that is the failure to do our basic fiscal business, namely an annual budget. The 1974 Congressional Budget Act is the law of the land. It lays out not only a procedure for drawing up an annual budget but also a timetable for doing it. It’s been quite some time since we’ve complied with either the procedure or the timetable and as a result, we’ve engaged in very poorly thought out, patchwork budgeting for years now.

That’s one reason we are staring this fiscal cliff in the face. All of these decisions that we haven’t been able to make for years and years and years are now piled up and are now coming due all at once. The fiscal cliff is the sum of government dysfunction in fiscal policy.

nbj: How important is campaign finance reform in this discussion?
BG: There are lots of organizations working on that issue and I’m not going to engage in a comparative assessment of money in politics as opposed to institutional reform, but I will say this: If you gave me a choice between another round of campaign finance reform and a long delayed round of filibuster reform, I would chose the latter without a moment’s hesitation. I think it would make a much bigger difference.

nbj: Why?
BG: We have political parties now that are both deeply divided on matters of substance and also pretty narrowly divided—evenly balanced by historical standards—which means that in all of the institutions where the minority can have a say and where the acquiescence of at least a portion of the majority is needed in order to get business done, business is not getting done.

The epicenter of dysfunction is the Senate, where the filibuster has now become a routine part of business. It’s no longer an exceptional fact. It’s the norm, and this has had the effect of bringing the institution to a halt. Serious people who have opposed filibuster reform for a long time are now coming out in favor of it because they see the obvious—namely, that as long as we keep working with the same rules, we are going to keep on getting the same results.

nbj: Any particular thoughts on the GMO labeling efforts in California? I’m particularly interested in the notion, right or wrong, that $46 million in opposition spending was able to ‘buy the ballot’ there.
BG: I don’t know the issue well enough to say, but generally speaking that might be true. That’s more likely to be the case in a low-information specialist area where people start off with a general predilection but not a lot of facts. Advertising can make a big difference in those circumstances.

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