Between gridlock and greed

It is difficult to say which is preferable: a party-based politics that sometimes results in governmental gridlock, or a money-based politics that runs smoothly on pork barrel privileges.  America today illustrates the deep-rooted dysfunctions of the former, while the Philippines showcases the perverse pragmatism of the latter.

The other day, many offices of the US federal government were forced to shut down because a divided Congress failed to pass a new federal budget. A Republican Party-dominated House of Representatives refused to fund the Obama administration’s healthcare program that compels all Americans to secure healthcare insurance. The offshoot of this is that the entire budget is held hostage. On the other hand, a Democratic Party-dominated Senate has staunchly refused to approve a budget bill that does not include funding for the healthcare law.

The last time an event like this happened in America was in 1996 during the presidency of Bill Clinton. The Democrats exploited the political fallout created by the government shutdown and went on to win the next election. In this manner does the modern political system check its dysfunctions—by penalizing political recklessness and irresponsibility through the ballot. Veterans of the Republican Party, like former presidential candidate John McCain, are keenly aware of the political costs of ignoring the public sentiment, and are deeply fearful that the party may again have to pay heavily for the stubbornness of its ultraconservative members.

As controversial as the Obama-initiated healthcare law may have been, the reality is that it was passed by Congress after prolonged and acrimonious debate. The US Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the law. But, more important, the American voters spoke for themselves at the polls. If they thought the program was a big mistake, they would not have given President Obama, who had vigorously pushed for it, a second term. Still, public opinion is never static. It’s possible that the Republicans think they can make political capital out of this debacle. That’s how modern politics works.

Contrast this with the cavalier way in which our own lawmakers tend to treat what is perhaps the most important bill that comes their way every year—the budget bill. The debates are seldom ideological; they have little to do with disputes over the priorities and directions of government. Lawmakers like to use the budget deliberations as occasions to punish or humiliate heads of agencies that have displeased them. They have no qualms raising personal issues that have absolutely nothing to do with government performance.

Officials of the executive branch learn to take these rituals of degradation as part and parcel of the budgetary process. Indeed, often, they see lawmakers’ objections as no more than a form of leverage for congressional insertions, or as a prelude to thinly-veiled requests for personal favors. Seldom, if at all, do both chambers of Congress get to the point where a budget bill hangs on the balance of a substantive ideological disagreement. If worst comes to worst, and pork barrel politics fails to soften resistance to the new budget, the previous year’s budget is merely reenacted. The government is thus never in danger of shutting down or failing to pay its debts. On the contrary, in previous years, the Arroyo administration notoriously turned reenacted budgets to its own advantage.

A system like ours makes it easy for a president with a clear sense of purpose to implement his/her vision for the country. As we have seen, compared to that of the United States, our political system places such an enormous amount of resources in the hands of the president as to enable him/her to easily neutralize a recalcitrant Congress. By the same token, however, one can imagine how much damage a corrupt presidency can do if it can easily buy Congress.

There is no real recourse available within this system to get rid of a president or, for that matter, lawmakers who have betrayed public trust. Money easily overrides the check and balance mechanisms built into the Constitution. I believe this explains the eagerness with which, after 1986, we turn to people power to fix the dysfunctions of our political system.

The current government shutdown in the United States will likely not last more than a few days. It will compel the two political parties to forge a compromise if only to avert serious damage to the economy. The next elections will then tell if the public looks upon this brinkmanship as an act of irresponsibility or welcomes it as the coming of age of Tea Party conservatism.

Though prone to episodes of gridlock in a sharply bifurcated society, democratic politics ultimately finds its way through recurrent crises without having to step out of the available institutional mechanisms. In contrast, political crises in less modern societies like ours are seldom resolved through elections. Worse, they tend to engulf the rest of society’s key institutions—the mass media, the courts, the economy, the family, the Church, the educational system, etc.

We have seen in the last two months how chronic greed has compromised the functioning of our legislature. If our democracy were mature, the pork barrel scandal could result in the jailing of easily half of the members of Congress. It would spell the downfall of the nation’s most powerful political families. But, we are not so sanguine that this will come to pass soon. The reason lies in the continuing power of money to shape judicial and electoral outcomes in our society.