COLUMN: Don't change the player, change the game

A staunch Republican friend of mine and I were discussing Washington’s buzzer-beater finish to avoid the fiscal cliff. Though we rarely agree on anything, we came to at least one common conclusion: “It’s great politics but poor leadership.”

Most people might be surprised to hear the debates, infamous for their delay right up to the deadline, given any credit at all. In fact, the majority of the public’s ire has been directed at politicians and a perceived inability to reach a compromise. But, that viewpoint misunderstands the way politics works. It’s not about adherence to deadlines — it’s about doing right by your conscience and ideologies.

A good politician isn’t going to finish a fiscal deal early for the same reasons a good athlete isn’t going to walk to the locker room and hang up his cleats in the middle of the third quarter: There’s still time on the clock. By the same logic, no self-respecting politician would vote for a bill they thought they could still improve. The desire to wrangle right up to the deadline is a laudable trait; it’s part of what makes a good politician, and that’s why the debates continued right up to the deadline.

Of course, none of that means it makes good leadership. Standard and Poor’s August 2011 statements about their downgrade of the U.S.’s credit rating— on the heels of a similar last-minute deal to raise the debt ceiling— says it eloquently:

“The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy.”

In other words, political wrangling in the interests of individual parties ended up harming collective credibility. So, what’s to be done?

The lesson to be learned is that the issue isn’t individual, but structural. Politicians can’t be blamed for following their consciences any more than athletes can be blamed for playing their hardest. Instead of blaming individual politicians for legislative woes, we should be blaming the political processes that encourage debating right up to a deal’s deadline.

Legislation that mandates earlier planning — a proposed plan by X date, a counterproposal by Y date and a vote by Z date, then repeat — would be a great start, as well as a focus on our system’s procedural flaws that encourage our current culture of “brinkmanship.” It certainly won’t solve the problem entirely, and it even comes with its own problems. (After all, is it wise to structurally entrench the kind of behavior we’ve just seen?)

Nonetheless, something needs to change, and it makes significantly less sense to switch out individual politicians, because it’s not about individuals–it’s about the process.

So, when it comes to changing Washington’s partisan divides, don’t change the player — change the game.


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