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Why Washington needs backroom deals
Pundits blame our rancorous politics for the retirements of moderates like Olympia Snowe. We'd be wiser to point the finger at good-government reforms
 
Tish Durkin
Tish Durkin

Aspiring aisle-crossers everywhere bemoaned the news last week that Sen. Olympia Snowe, the famously moderate Republican of Maine, had decided to forfeit her safe seat in the U.S. Senate rather than face another six years of dodging the partisan manure that has come to be flung day and night through the hallowed halls of that institution. My reaction was just a wee bit different: Snowe's retirement is a reminder that we ought to bring back the smoke-filled room and the deals that used to get made in it. We should hope that our top leaders hold more top-secret meetings, and pray that they keep us all in the dark about exactly who said exactly what. 

Mine is the wrong reaction among polite company, of course. The right reaction in proper circles is to purse one's lips into a puritanical pout and declare the departure of Sen. Snowe — along with her colleagues Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, and Evan Bayh before them — as sadly conclusive evidence that American politics have grown hopelessly polarized, and to pine for the time when it wasn't. Unfortunately, I can't imagine when when that time was. What I can imagine, though, is a time when politicians, once elected and thus rendered colleagues, were permitted to interact almost as if they were people. That's what's gone now, and that's what can and should be restored before the last centrist throws his or her hands up in theair, leaves the Congress, and shuts out the lights.

Reforms have succeeded in curbing all the critical little human interactions inherent in old-style politics, while preserving all the major elements of malfeasance.

First, let's do away, once and for all, with the ridiculous but often-stated chestnut that America is more divided than it's ever been. When pundits say things like that, I wonder what history they could possibly be reading. Certainly not that of the Revolution, which was followed by years of bitter contretemps over everything from land rights to the wisdom or folly of establishing a currency to what constituted sedition. Then came almost a century of constant argument and frequent bloodshed over the expansion or containment of slavery, culminating in a Civil War that killed something like three quarters of a million Americans. Skipping over the removal and/or extermination of native peoples, the chaos and corruption of Reconstruction, the ugly alarmism surrounding immigration, and the carnage of World War I, we arrive at the mass destitution and dangerous unrest of the Great Depression. This ushered in the red-hot hostilities between Americans who hailed Franklin Roosevelt's social agenda and those who hated it, closely succeeded by the equally-impassioned conflicts between interventionists and isolationists on the question of World War II. Then there was the Cold War, with its attendant fears and witch hunts; the long, bruising battles over Civil Rights and Vietnam, and the "long national nightmare" of Watergate. Even if one glosses over the small matters of nuclear brinksmanship, Iran Contra and the advent of the trillion-dollar debt to accept the 1980s and early '90s as an era of relative calm, it wasn't long before the country was caught up again in the political brawls born of the Clinton scandals and the "stolen" election of 2000, which soon paled in comparison to the devastation of 9/11 and its resultant wars. Last but not least, the global economic meltdown has spawned the dueling Tea Party and Occupy movements.

It is abundantly clear that the American people have spent much more time clashing than conciliating.

So what's gone wrong? It's not the level of discord on the ground. It's the level of discord at the top. The system has come to reward politicians who sharpen dissension, and punish those who try to soften it. The explanations for this situation are numerous, and one of the most important is also one of the least expected: The good-government reform movement, and the myopic-watchdog mentality that has grown up around it in the media.

Yes, children, there was a time when ideologically opposite politicians could have an off-the-record chat without being simultaneously blogged about. There was a time when their staffs could keep accurate, insightful notes without reasonable fear of having to turn it all over to the next subcommittee out for the boss's blood. There was a time when it was neither a crime nor an ethics infraction to attend a party thrown by lobbyists or issues advocates, at which congressional types from both parties could have cocktails, canapés and — who knows? — conversation with each other. And there was a time when, now and again, politicians went on foreign junkets during which they probably did not spend every hour of every day doing the global good. But they did step foot on foreign soil — always a plus for U.S. officials, too many of whom do not even have passports — and they at least got the opportunity to know each other. This used to be known as a good thing for people who actually planned to work together.

Granted, there was also a time when all of these perks were brazenly abused, which is how the impulse arose to regulate or shame them out of existence. It's a noble impulse, and one that periodically gets its shining moment on Capitol Hill, usually by way of cleaning up the scum after some horrendous scandal. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, just for one relatively-recent example, owes its life to Jack Abramoff, and regulates everything from the length of time that one must wait between serving in government and taking a job lobbying government to the price at which a lobbyist-funded plate of dinner becomes morally objectionable ($51). All this would be fair enough, if it had the intended effect. But does it?

Apparently not. Private-sector spending on lobbying has doubled in the past 10 years, to $3.5 billion, and the ranks of lobbyists have swelled to some 15,000. Nonetheless, in citing these figures for the Financial Times Weekend Magazine, Gillian Tett notes a contradiction: "Although companies are spending to lobby on particular narrow issues that affect them, they are not generally getting involved in the truly big policy debates." For most businesses, legislative involvement is all about seeing that the technical minutiae works to their advantage, rather than addressing any larger economic or industry questions in ways that might actually — can you imagine? — benefit both business and the general public.

In this case, what goes for the targets of reform goes for the reforms themselves. Although billed as breaking the great connection between money and power, which is nearly impossible, reform measures end up doing what comes naturally: Unleashing compliance lawyers to find loopholes in the provisions that matter, and reporters to sniff out pathetic violations of the provisions that don't.

Too often, then, reforms have succeeded in curbing all the little human interactions inherent in old-style politics, while preserving all the major elements of malfeasance, albeit in somewhat altered forms. Eroding the comity while leaving the corruption cannot have been the goal, but that does seem to be the result.

We can't return to a golden age of great American political unity that never was. But we can go back to giving elected officials a little room to maneuver. Can't we?

 

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