Is democracy starting to wither? The national and local legislatures are so dysfunctional that the action in politics these days is mostly coming from executive orders or court rulings.
A few weeks ago there was a hearing at the state Capitol in Olympia that got very little attention, but which perfectly illustrated an emerging theory about legislative democracy in America.
Namely, that it’s so dysfunctional it’s starting to collapse.
The issue at the Olympia hearing is almost immaterial, but it happened to be the death penalty. Speakers trooped to the mike to argue that capital punishment costs too much, and takes too long, so it should be abolished.
What was interesting was the pushback from some conservative legislators. They seemed to accept that it costs too much and doesn’t work that well (rarely is anyone executed). They argued to fix it — by cutting back the prisoners’ lengthy appeals process, for example.
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When the hearing was over, though, the issue was shelved for the year, with no more work on it or a vote.
I bring this up because right now in King County we are holding two death-penalty trials simultaneously. The cost is exorbitant — an estimated $15 million and rising. We’re doing it even though the governor issued an executive order last year suspending all executions.
As the hearing showed, most concede that at least some aspect of this system of justice is broken. Yet it keeps going on autopilot.
Doesn’t that sound a lot like … fill in the blank with an issue … immigration? System: broken. Congress: gridlocked. President: acting unilaterally.
Or: No Child Left Behind federal education policy? Broken, gridlock, president acting unilaterally.
What followed in those cases, as with Gov. Jay Inslee’s death-penalty moratorium, was not the hoped-for work to fix the system. Instead we got more political paralysis, as with the manufactured crisis over Department of Homeland Security funding last week.
The same trend is going on with climate change, gun violence, you name it. At the national level and to some degree in our state, the legislative bodies have become so dysfunctional they are increasingly bystanders.
The action these days is all in executive orders and court rulings (or, sometimes here in our state, in initiative campaigns).
Political scientists have been charting this slow erosion of democracy for some time. One dubbed it “constitutional hardball” — the increasing activism of executives and the courts to push solutions that are right up to the line of what’s allowed, if not over it.
“America’s constitutional democracy is going to collapse,” was the first line of an extensive recent article at the policy website Vox.com. The argument is that Congress is so polarized it’s breaking down. So the other two branches are, for better or worse, stepping up.
Another local example: The state Supreme Court’s recent discussion that the judges themselves may step in and write the public schools’ budget, after they had found the state in contempt for failing to carry out this basic duty.
Global historical trends like the collapse of democracy are far above my pay grade. But I have noticed way down at the newspaper-columnist level that the legislative bodies that used to matter most — Congress and the state Legislature — are both increasingly irrelevant to the real political action.
At the national level, it’s hard to imagine this Congress accomplishing anything in the next two years. It’ll be all Obama executive orders and Republican investigative hearings.
Locally, when I was calling around to interested parties asking about their lobbying on some big-ticket items before the state Legislature, I mostly got scoffed at. The Legislature is a sideshow, they said. From climate change to minimum wage to tax policy to, yes, the death penalty, the feeling is major policy changes will only come through a well-financed initiative, an executive order, or not at all.
This is a bad road we’re going down. For all their foibles, legislatures are still better places to solve public problems than the alternatives. They should try doing it again sometime.