Polling this week by both the Pew Research Center and the Washington Post found that Americans characterized the negotiations leading up to the debt ceiling deal as "ridiculous," "disgusting," and "stupid," words that might aptly characterize reality television instead of the world's greatest deliberative body.
Sadly, the debt ceiling negotiations seemed to reflect far more from the ethic of reality TV than the spirit of deliberation.
Early on in the process, the Republicans' decision to use the debt ceiling vote as a way to raise consciousness about the enormity of our federal debt had some tactical appeal. Something, it seemed, needed to remind lawmakers (who have failed to pass a budget since 2009) that revenues and expenditures are unsustainably out of sync. The tea party insurgency in the mid-term elections was bound to find this kind of legislative expression.
But whatever the original tactical appeal of this manufactured crisis, the process veered quickly into dysfunction. Once this debt ceiling vote was identified as a focal point, rating agencies duly took note and threatened a downgrade of the nation's credit. And with each day it became more difficult to determine precisely what it was each side really wanted. Enormously important but difficult questions, such as the nature of our social compact, the advisability of amending the Constitution and the proper role of government were shoehorned into an unreasonably short timetable for real debate.
Well-functioning organizations, almost by definition, have ways for those with differing viewpoints to confront differences through honest dialogue that protects their safety and dignity as they work toward solutions.
In this era of reality television, however, it seems that players on both sides can't resist the allure of news cameras as a regular outlet for denunciation and self-promotion. The prominence of the debt ceiling crisis showcased for the American public and world markets what astute Washington observers have lamented now for years: lawmakers are less engaged in the practice of deliberation than in the game of mastering the sound bite for maximum media exposure and fund-raising appeal.
In our representative system, citizens expect their representatives to do the hard work of carefully considering options, listening attentively to other viewpoints and reflecting maturely on how to move forward, while honoring the lawmaking process as well as other lawmakers. Such deliberation need not compromise on core principles, but it should avoid getting hung-up on ideology.
Imagine what the spirit of deliberation might have looked like in the recent debt ceiling debate. It could have been reflected in the White House taking seriously the bipartisan work of the deficit reduction commission when crafting this year's budget. Or in the House taking into account what was politically feasible in the Senate when drafting legislation. Or in Senate leadership refraining from phrases like "dead on arrival" before considering legislation approved by the House.
It could have eliminated competing press conferences and different versions about who walked away from whom in favor of listening and acknowledging the valid concerns of lawmakers with different priorities. And it might have done the hard work of balancing those differing priorities to produce a larger, more comprehensive package of deficit reduction in less time.
The debt ceiling negotiations, however, revealed that many of our lawmakers have either never learned or have forgotten the art of deliberation. Instead of observing mature debate, the public was subjected to repeated slogans that seemed crafted for campaign bumper stickers and direct-mail fundraising rather than legislative problem solving.
Regrettably, lawmakers squandered their opportunity to elevate and inform public debate about the complex problems associated with public finances. Their communications might have focused on solutions, emphasizing the need for shared sacrifice and discipline as the basis for future national achievement. But too many lawmakers littered our public discourse by tossing out extravagant and incendiary language for partisan purposes.
Although last week's compromise averted default in the near term, it exposed the immaturity of our nation's political leadership. The compromise and the process leading to it shouted out to world financial markets that America cannot rely on ordinary legislative processes to cope with its fiscal problems, let alone identify the logical parameters of the solution to those problems.
Given the long, slow slide away from deliberative processes within Congress, perhaps delegating the challenge of deficit reduction to a super committee is the best the nation can hope for. But the issues before the committee are immense. Knowledgeable observers tend to agree that meaningful deficit reduction will require changes to taxation, entitlements and defense. This committee, working under the Damocles sword of massive mandatory cuts if their proposals are not accepted, must answer questions such as: Should the tax code be reformed? If so, how? Should entitlement reform emphasize income security for seniors or protection of a social safety net for the poor? How deeply can the nation cut defense without harming national security?
Americans who will be directly affected by cuts to public finances deserve clear reasons for those changes. But they also deserve to know that the lawmakers instituting such changes have acted with probity, and that they actually personally model the mature characteristics required by financial responsibility: attentive discipline, shared sacrifice and acceptance of accountability.
Thomas Jefferson once observed, "The qualifications for self-government are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training." In our opinion, lawmakers urgently need to restore the spirit of deliberation to their work. Although this may require some modest institutional reforms, the most important changes will come from lawmakers themselves as they demonstrate self-mastery, loyalty to the institution in which they serve and respect for the dignity of their colleagues. As the events of this past week have shown, the confidence of the American people and the health of world markets depend upon it.