Outsourcing the deliberative process
By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
THE POSITION we take in the above editorial is an uncomfortable one. I say that not because using a “BRAC” approach to consolidate school districts is a bad idea. In fact, it’s a great one. But it shouldn’t be.
Our system of representative democracy is all about the deliberative process: We, the people, elect representatives to go to Congress or the Legislature and study complex issues in detail, debate them, make tough decisions for the sake of the whole nation or state, and then come back and face the voters.
This proposal sidesteps that process: It empowers a separate body — not directly elected — to address a long-neglected statewide problem. The members of that body do all the studying and work out all the details — that is, the actual discernment. Then they hand the whole package to the elected body for a simple “yes” or “no.”
The tragedy is that this is apparently the only way that our small state can do away with the shameful waste of having 85 school districts — some of them incredibly tiny, each with its own separate administration.
Why? Because elected representatives won’t touch it. Why? Because they’re elected.
Anyone with common sense looking objectively at this can see that it would be insane not to consolidate districts. But any representative who advocates shuttering a local district faces the danger
of not getting re-elected.
So we find ourselves in a situation in which the most effective approach is to outsource the deliberative process. And school consolidation isn’t the only tough state issue that our delegates may choose to sub-contract.
S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell is proposing the same approach on tax reform. He would have a special panel draw up a list of sales tax exemptions to eliminate. Why? Because elected representatives don’t have the guts to face the narrow constituencies (from auto dealers to newspapers) whose tax breaks such a plan might eliminate.
The truth nowadays is that on some issues, our republic’s deliberative process freezes up and dies like a car engine without a drop of oil in it.
That’s how “BRAC” — for Base Realignment and Closure — entered the language to start with. It was impossible for Congress to achieve savings and efficiencies by closing and consolidating domestic military bases. Why? Because every member of Congress had to have one. Or two, or more.
Instead of an objective comparison of the relative merits of this or that military facility, followed by tough but smart decisions, the only sort of “debate” that occurred before BRAC went like this: “You keep my base open, and I’ll scratch your back, too.”
Our system is dysfunctional — at least on issues that involve sacred cows — not because representatives are out of touch, but because they are never out of touch with home long enough to collaborate seriously with their colleagues for the greater good.
Most advocates of term limits say lawmakers get “corrupted” by Washington or Columbia to the point that they forget the wishes of the folks back home. Hardly.
Syndicated columnist George Will has advocated term limits for the opposite reason. He says the only way lawmakers will stop listening to the folks back home long enough to think is if they cannot run for re-election.
I oppose term limits for various reasons, including the fact that I’d rather have laws made by people with some experience at it. But we’ve got to find some way to make critical decisions that politicians with their eyes on the next election refuse to face.
One good thing about a BRAC is that it can be seen as representative democracy the way it was intended to work: A group is delegated to study the issues with few distractions and deliberate until a rational plan emerges.
This may be the only way our elected representatives ever vote on a proposal that takes the whole state’s interest into account. A plan that makes the tough calls would probably never make it to the floor otherwise.
I like to think our system is timeless. But that reckons without technology: In the days before the 24-hour news cycle, blogs, cell phones and mass e-mails, representatives had a chance to concentrate constructively on issues and make decisions accordingly. The cacophony of modern communications makes that nearly impossible.
Some look at this situation and come up with a whole other way: skirting the republican system entirely. Gov. Mark Sanford would ask voters to curtail the Legislature’s power to appropriate, by setting an arbitrary constitutional limit on spending growth.
His reasoning sounds a bit like ours: The system isn’t working. When I asked how he could advocate undermining “small-R” republican ideals, he said: “You need to be more aware of the political environment that you’re operating in — be less, you know, idealistic, less, uh, you know, high and lofty, and just get down into the gears of how our government system actually works.”
Talk about being disillusioned. Of course, I can identify. But there’s a difference. While the BRAC idea reflects a lack of faith in the Legislature’s deliberative fortitude, it does not abandon faith in deliberation
itself. In fact, it gives the General Assembly a little help in that area.
The contrast between such a careful, studious process of objective decision-making and what the governor is proposing — a quick Election Day show of hands, yes or no, on an unfathomably complex fiscal question — could hardly be greater.
I’m still not thrilled about having to institute a “work-around” to set policy, but comparing a “BRAC” to setting future budgets in a single plebiscite makes me feel a lot better about it.
Outsourcing the deliberative process