Our national government often seems dysfunctional. Congress is reluctant to perform its primary functions. The problem is a failure to function within our form of representative democracy. With only two parties, our system is essentially an all-or-nothing proposition, either one party or the other has the majority. They hold the key to passing any legislation. The bicameral nature of Congress creates the possibility of a split vote. This can create a deadlock if the differences cannot be resolved. Additionally, an independently elected executive (president) with veto power creates another blocking opportunity.
Passing a budget is perhaps the most critical task for legislative bodies to perform (which has become increasingly controversial). Even with the ability to create deficits, the inability to execute an overall budget at the national level usually leads to the passing of rolling resolutions (short-term spending authorizations). This wreaks havoc on policy enforcement agencies. There is great uncertainty about additional funding. This limitation is particularly acute in the military domain where the threats are constantly changing and where the development time for weapon systems is long.
At the local level (county and city), the process is somewhat different. The executive (mayor or city manager) can influence but is fundamentally incapable of dictating outcomes. Fortunately, ideology usually takes a back seat to reality. The issues facing our population relate to community services (roads, schools, economic development, etc.) which generally rest on their own merits rather than on ideological foundations.
Unlike the US Congress, state and local governments are required by law to pass “balanced” budgets. Even that has an element of fiction because it’s based on projected earnings. On occasion this has left an operating deficit which compounds the problems in later proceedings, as it must be made up retroactively before the new budget can be balanced.
Unfortunately, at all levels, the funding process is becoming increasingly problematic. Achieving a working majority to pass a budget inevitably requires compromise – something of a dirty word in an increasingly partisan environment. Inevitably, anyone who “crosses the line” is crucified (for actually doing their job).
As a former alderman, I participated in such procedures. Conflicting views (on what to fund or how much to allocate) were prevalent. Competing priorities and alternate perspectives were rarely malicious. On the contrary, they were legitimately promoting their beliefs. Our system was set up with checks and balances to prevent the prospect of a “tyranny of the majority” from systematically suppressing minority views.
We would all fight for our respective positions. I rarely got everything I wanted. It was the same for the others. On occasion, I’ve held my nose and voted for something I never would have originally proposed. Why? Because it was always our legal obligation to run a balanced budget, regardless of my personal beliefs.
I could not justify violating this responsibility unless I felt a catastrophic result would ensue. In military parlance, “Not everything is worth falling on your saber.”
I saw several officials who seemed to consistently vote “No!” In the end, their views were ignored in the deliberations. Their point of view never changed and a compromise with them was impossible, so they lost their influence.
Those sitting on the sidelines may try to claim personal (ideological) purity while the rest of the public servants do the “heavy lifting” (actually produce a budget). Generally, they did not offer a legitimate alternative; they simply reject the consequences of their constitutional obligation. One might wonder if they are playing the system for personal gain (like getting re-elected)? As a colleague put it, “There are show horses and there are work horses.”
We have a representative democracy. As we try to build our future, let’s hope our elected officials truly “represent” our best interests, even if that is sometimes unpopular.
Dave Clark is an entrepreneur and former Councilor of Kingsport.