Outlook article titled 'Comprehensive reform is overrated. For real change, Washington must think small.' "/> Outlook: 'Comprehensive reform is overrated. For real change, Washington must think small.' - The Washington Post Outlook article titled 'Comprehensive reform is overrated. For real change, Washington must think small.' ">
The Washington Post

Jul 12, 2010

Michael Lind, policy director of the economic growth program at the New America Foundation, discussed his Outlook article titled 'Comprehensive reform is overrated. For real change, Washington must think small.'

Hi, Michael Lind here to discuss my Outlook piece in Sunday's Washington Post about the pitfalls of comprehensive reform.  I look forward to your feedback and questions.

You write accurately that FDR's "accomplishments were the result more of ceaseless trial and error." Your editorial doesn't mention the element of hyper-partisan positions in Congress, but can't this atmosphere add to legislators thinking that they have only one chance, so they had better seize that chance and do it all in one big bill?

I think that hyper-partisanship plays a role, but not so much by imposing calendar deadlines as by making it difficult to form shifting coalitions for multiple small reforms.  Our parties were less ideologically coherent in the past, so it was easier for progressive Republicans to team up with liberal Democrats on some issues while conservative Democrats allied themselves with conservative Republicans on others.  As the parties have grown more coherent, a small number of center-right swing votes in Congress, mostly Blue Dog Democrats, have much more power than they did in the past.  You could make a case, I suppose, that its better to bargain with the same small group of swing votes all at once rather than repeatedly.  Even so, I thinkt that comprehensive reform will seldom succeed, for the other reasons I discussed.

An interesting article: I was reminded of the concept of Kaizen, which was popular during Japan's economic heyday. But the idea of passing a series of more limited bills, each with different sets of supporters, has it limitations when politicians recognize, or believe they recognize, a distinct direction or purpose in number of smaller bills put foreward by rivals, and eventually endeavour to derail the perceived greater purpose. The process is longer but there's still no guarantee that the pieces will eventually be all put together in a meaningful way.

Your point assumes a unified opposition, which will block a program whether in the form of salami tactics or one big salami.  That is certainly a problem, given the party discipline of the Republicans in opposition (the Democrats, even in opposition, are less disciplined).  Salami tactics work only if the opposition doesn't maintain a united front in rejecting every piece of the salami.

While the premise is nice, how much does the process of a comprehensive bill some into play on this? I mean, how many riders, projects and pork are slipped into these large bills as part of the negotiation process? And if it takes such a long time to pass a bill, why not do it all together? However, your article raises a great point, why have credit card reform (for consumers) in the same bill as derivative reform (for investment bankers)? Thanks.

You've made my point for me!  Sure, the credit card reform bill might be stuffed with earmarks or giveaways...but it would be a credit card reform bill, not a would-be comprehensive financial reform bill.   At least in the case of immigration you can make the case that you need to do several things at once--that is, if you seal the borders and police workplaces, you have to do something with the unemployed illegal immigrants trapped inside the border.  But you can raise fuel efficiency standards without passing cap-and-trade and you can outlaw pay-day lending abuses without waiting for national agreement on the Volcker Rule or the tax treatment of carried interest in the case of hedge fund managers.

Thank you for doing this chat, Mr. Lind, and for your response to this question submitted in advance. I noticed your column in Sunday's Post neglected to mention the modern concentration of congressional power in the leadership of the two parties and in the Appropriations committees of the two houses. This is bound to make legislative progress toward a larger number of smaller reforms more difficult than it was when legislative responsibility was more broadly dispersed. Why is it logical to expect multiple small reform bills to emerge from party caucuses under constant pressure to maintain party discipline for or against the president? As Congress operates now, a smaller number of more comprehensive reform bills is probably easier to pass.

Your point is important and well taken.  Because of our inherited British first-past-the-post electoral system, which most democracies long ago abandoned for some version of proportional representation (PR), third and fourth parties are punished in the U.S. and we tend to get two big parties.  However, for most of our history the two-party framework disguised a de facto three- or four- or five-party system.  The McKinley-Hoover Republicans had their Wall Street internationalist and Midwestern protectionist wings, and the New Deal Democrats were a coalition of Southern conservatives, Southern and Western populists, the Northern white urban working class and Northern progressives, with increasing black participation over time.  Beginning in the 1990s, Newt Gingrich tried to impose British-style parliamentary discipline on the Republican party, with great success, and the Democrats have done the same thing, less effectively.  I don't think our system can work by imposing a rigid two-party system on a fluid, multi-party population.  As long as we're stuck with first-past-the-post electoral rules, we need to have two looser parties, which are really coalitions of several informal parties, instead of two disciplined parties imposing party lines that only a liberal minority and a conservative minority completely agree with.

It seems to me to mean a bill longer than the Bible or War and Peace, which is indigestible to the public and therefore creates suspicion rather than support. What to you think?

I agree with Napoleon, who said:  "I like a constitution that is short and vague."  Not only most laws but also constitutions should be concise enough that ordinary citizens can understand them.  And it should be easy to amend constitutions by voters when conditions change, as an alternative to having judges or executive branch officials amend them by interpretation.  France is much healthier because they are honest about having had five republics; we've had a series of different regimes in practice since the adoption of the federal constitution, but we pretend that the 1787 federal constitution hasn't been altered radically by amendment and interpretation.  Which reminds me of a joke.  An American goes to a Parisian bookseller and asks for a copy of the French constitution.  The French bookseller sneers, "We do not sell periodical literature."

One topic that you didn't cover that would lend credibility to the issue of whether comprehensive reform does not work is in education where the Congress in at least 1965, 2001 with No Child, the current Race to the Top and other initiatives has tried to improve the lot of education in the U.S. and, regardless of what has been done, it doesn't seem to be getting better.

I'm not an expert on the subject, but I know enough about American public education to make me skeptical about the idea that Congress can successfully reform it from Washington, at least without increasing Washington's share of education funding.  Most people would be shocked to learn that the federal government is responsible for less than a tenth of the spending on K-12.  Funding is divided almost entirely between states and local public school districts.  Congress imposes conditions on the small amount of money that it gives local public school systems.  I'd be much more impressed if the federal government, like national governments in other democracies, paid for a quarter or half of K-12 funding, something that would allow states and districts to raise the rest with much lower taxes, particularly in poor cities and poor states.  As long as members of Congress announce that they are imposing new conditions on the pittances they dole out to public schools, they're just grandstanding for the cameras, in my opinion.

You have written about Lincoln. I find it interesting that Lincoln acheived comprehensive reform, yet it took the background of a Civil War where his opposition was not participating in the decision that led to the comprehensive reform. Even the Emancipation Proclamation was a political documet as it had little immediate effect (although it would have major effect after the Civil War was over). The border states were exempted, so they would not switch allegiances to the Confederacy, the Northern states had already banned slavery, and the Southern states were at war. Is this analysis accurate or have I missed some points?

Yes, you're correct.  Which reinforces my point--if it's hard to accomplish comprehensive reform during a civil war, it's infinitely more difficult during peacetime, even in a Great Recession.

My time is up, alas.  I'd like to thank everyone for sending in questions and comments, including those whose questions I didn't have time to answer. 

All the best,

Michael Lind

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Michael Lind
Michael Lind is policy director of the economic growth program at the New America Foundation and the author of "What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America's Greatest President.' .
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