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A Government in Disarray Drifting Toward Accidents

December 07, 1986|James David Barber | James David Barber, James B. Duke professor of political science at Duke University, is the author of "The Presidential Character" (Prentice-Hall).

DURHAM, N.C. — Six years into the Reagan Administration, a scandal at the top wakes the country to what has been going on since day one of this presidency. The revelation that we have a juvenile government in Washington naturally arouses righteous indignation. But the moralistic solution--throw the rascals out--falls short of what must be done. If the United States is to recover from the collapse of public trust at home and abroad, we had better face the facts and restore reason to politics.

The facts are harsh. The odds of a last world war, triggered by accident or design, escalate daily. The restless Third World bangs against the bars of their debtors prison. The environment degenerates from Mother Nature into Typhoid Mary. Human rights violations continue to spread throughout the world.

These life and death challenges confront us at a time when the position of the United States in world politics is radically weakened. Whatever our solutions, they will have to be implemented by the most adroit and insistent diplomacy, for we can no longer tell even our allies what to do.

Economically, our relative position in world trade has plummeted; we have to haggle over cars and oil and textiles with nations we used to think of as our dependents. They are beating us, as the trade deficit shows. Financially, we are more and more encumbered with debt to foreigners. Diplomatically, we are one among many nations thrashing around to meet whatever crises arise, such as famine, terrorism, drug hustling, illegal immigration and the like. Our mammoth budget deficit saps our international power and, despite our sum total affluence, more than 30 million Americans live in poverty. Thus we face not only the challenge of thinking up solutions but the harder one of putting them into effect. Intellectually and politically, we should be concentrating our nation's best brains and leading talents on these tough issues.

There is one and only one instrument plausibly capable of addressing these problems: the government of the United States. Yet seldom has that bundle of institutions been in such disarray as it is today. The Congress is atomized--a mammoth collection of committees whose members occasionally meet in the same building. The original constitutional role of the Congress was clear enough: to debate the major issues confronting the republic and to pass laws to solve them. But Congress does not debate. What happens on the floor in plenary sessions is not persuasive discussion among attentive representatives, with a view to developing legal solutions. Such deliberation as does take place goes on in increasingly specialized committees, a process of analytic pluralism which renders synthesis virtually impossible. The Congress cannot even rationally write and pass a budget, to fulfill its bedrock function of determining who pays for what. Whatever utility the Congress may have as a prep school for lobbyists, a breeding ground for presidential candidates, or a funder of international travel, it is no parliament. The political parties in Congress have not succeeded in collecting members for unified action or for bridging the gap between Congress and the people. In other words, the core institution of American democracy, the assembly of representatives elected to deliberate rationally and act decisively for the general welfare, does none of the above. What Congress does manage to produce in the way of law does not get treated as law by the rest of the government. The Congress has repeatedly passed laws which the bureaucracy then ignores or distorts. Money appropriated is rechanneled or impounded. Programs for human rights, civil rights, welfare and other purposes are put in the hands of bureaucratic chieftains adamantly opposed to the laws they are supposed to implement. The attorney general does not believe Supreme Court decisions are determinative. He is the leader of opposition to civil liberties in the United States.

The chief justice, presiding over a court whose split votes have become normal, seems to believe that rights are secondary to the will of majorities. The President uses the veto, meant as an exceptional measure, as a normal one, and encourages violations of the law against aid to Central American revolutionaries by private U.S. paramilitary forces. Thus confidence that solutions arrived at and agreed upon by Congress will be translated from potential law to actual law is washed away.

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