Insiders' Game

More and more, governing has become a process that leaves ordinary Americans watching from the sidelines

November 05, 2006|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff

This time of the year, there is a seamless flow on television as Sunday morning turns to afternoon, from the political talk shows to the NFL pre-game programs.

Both feature pontificating pundits chosen as much for their personalities as their insight. Style is at least as important as substance.

Most significantly, both are spectator sports. Professional football was designed as that. American politics was not.

Even on the verge of an election that has energized the electorate more than most mid-term votes, it still seems that the citizens are on the sidelines of a game that was once famously said to be "of the people, by the people and for the people."

It may be that, like those NFL contests, the game of governing has been handed to the pros. They make the decisions, we just root for our teams.

"We have been relegated to the role of spectators," says Benjamin Ginsberg, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "We cheer our teams, but just as cheering only marginally helps the Ravens, it is not decisive on the field, what determines the outcome of this game is a whole set of other factors."

So, at least on the national level, what the outcome of Tuesday's election will mean beyond one team saying it won and that the other lost is not all that clear.

"The whole idea that people could govern themselves has always been problematic," says Ginsberg. "But our country more than any other did at one time rely on the citizen administrator, the citizen soldier, the citizen jurist, the citizen legislator.

"We took the idea of popular government much more seriously than any other place in the world, but that's in the distant past now," he says. "Unfortunately, now we have professional administrators, professional soldiers, and we very nearly have professional legislators. We citizens are generally spectators."

Ginsberg and his fellow Hopkins political scientist Matthew Crenson wrote the 2002 book Downsizing Democracy : How America Sidelined its Citizens and Privatized its Public, which chronicles the transfer of power from the legislative branch to the executive. The result of that, they document, is decisions that were once debated and voted on by elected officials are now made by regulators hidden in the corridors of the executive branch.

"Most of what we consider federal law is written by administrative agencies through pages and pages of rules and regulations, compared to the rather small number of statutes Congress produces," Ginsberg says.

These professionals don't spend much of their time talking to elected officials, but instead consult another group of professionals: the lobbyists who are paid to pay attention to the arcane details of government.

"This is what they do now," Crenson says of lobbyists. "They don't go to Congress. Most of them are rooting around in the executive branch to try to find an agency to give them the regulation they want, or immunity from regulation."

The result, he says, is that "elections don't determine that much anymore.

"Look at some of the great issues of the past that got people really excited and are now off the agenda," he says. "In 1896, the big issue between the candidates was monetary policy. Who decides that now? The Federal Reserve. It's off the table as far as the electorate is concerned.

"The same is true of tariffs, that were a huge issue in the 19th century," Crenson says. "The passage of reciprocal trade agreements allows the president to decide what kind of tariffs to impose. There is a whole range of issues that used to be at the heart of American politics that are not part of the discussion now."

If any election makes a difference, Ginsberg and Crenson say, it is the one that comes up in two years. Their new book Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced, due out next month, "picks up where the other one left off," Crenson says.

"We know that participation in government is down, so what are the consequences for the way government runs?" he asks. "The main one is that the executive branch is the only one that has the wherewithal to carry out its own will. The other branches just ask the president to carry out their wishes. If he doesn't want to do it, he has shown that he won't."

Certainly there are some presidential decisions - such as going to war - that attract the public's spotlight. But many decisions emerge from deep in the executive branch's bureaucracy, from obscure agencies and boards, from the experts.

"The president has found that he doesn't need Congress very much," Ginsberg says. "He can govern using executive orders and signing statements and regulatory review. With a large number of unilateral instruments, the president is able to ignore Congress to an extent that would surprise most Americans."

And even the decision about going to war is different than it was a generation ago, when the draft ensured broad citizen participation in the consequences of that decision.

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