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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Mario Monti: Succumbing to Power?

He was supposed to have been reluctantly pushed into briefly stepping in as prime minister in Italy to push austerity measures through the state legislature.  According to Deutche Welle, “The 69-year-old former European Commissioner was appointed to lead Italy’s government . . . to restore Italy’s finances following Berlusconi’s departure.” The technocrat was not supposed to so interested in power that he would want to stay on. At the end of December 2012, Mario Monti announced that he would lead a centrist group of politicians against the Democratic Party and Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party in the upcoming election.  Had the former bureaucrat “found religion” in some political cause, or had he developed a taste for power? If the latter, we might ascribe the motive to the human propensity to resist giving up power willingly.
                                                   Mario Monti at the European Commission. A launching point for Italian politics?    source: nytimes
After meeting with centrist politicians, Monti went on to claim, “The traditional left-right split has historic and symbolic value” for the state, but “it does not highlight the real alliance that Italy needs—one that focuses on Europe and reforms. “  He added that his group could win a “significant result” in the upcoming election, paving the way for his possible return to the office. Was it the taste of victory or a mission for reform that was behind his new-found interest in staying on in office?  Or was he being pushed by E.U. leaders and those of other states? He would retain his senator-for-life office in the state senate regardless.  
This case could be illustrative of the difficulty that people have with walking away from power. Even a technocrat, sensing a political opportunity, may find it difficult to say no.  The example of George Washington, who refused to run for a third term as president of the U.S., may be particularly noteworthy. In the constitutional convention, Hamilton had urged a president for life. Moreover, Europe was still populated by ruling (rather than merely reigning) kings and queens. Washington could easily have argued that the new union needed the stability of leadership that only he could provide. He could have died in office and still been regarded as a hero.
In European terms, Washington would correspond to a European with tremendous stature willing to put his or her reputation on the line for the E.U. That union, being still in development in 2012, was at the time hardly “out of the woods” in terms of viability, and thus could use such leadership. A problem with relying so much on state leaders at the federal level is that the interests of one or a few dominant states can dictate the union’s policy. In turning to Italy after having pushed through the critical austerity legislation, Monti was unwittingly contributing to this risk. Just as in the early U.S., the state offices were the most sought. Put another way, as Monti was preparing to run for the office of prime minister in Italy, Europe needed him more, even if the power was still in the governor’s office at the state level.  Unlike in even the early U.S., in the E.U. he could affect both federal and state policy as prime minister of Italy, given the salience of the European Council (whose members are the state governments) at the federal level.
Statesmanship can be defined as turning down an opportunity for greater power in order to contribute to the greater good.  Such a duty is civic and moral in nature.  In contrast, the desire for a continuance of power represents a more convenient path. It is not as though self-interest is absent in the loftier route, for falling on one’s sword (and being able to tell the tale afterward) gives rise to valuable reputational capital, which can be leveraged for power and money.  To be credible, leadership cannot simply be a reflection of the simple path to power. Put another way, credible leadership must be oriented to governing rather than campaigning. In the European context, governing oriented to reforming the system itself has been a valuable, if not rare, commodity.


Reuters, “Italy’s Outgoing Prime Minister Confirms Election Bid,” Deutsche Welle, December 28, 2012.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Averting the "Fiscal Cliff": A Solution Overlooked

With just days to avert the beginning of automatic, across-the-board cuts in the U.S. federal budget and the end of the Bush tax cuts and payroll tax reductions, President Obama met with Congressional leaders at the White House following a brief respite over Christmas. The discussion was doubtless on what could pass Congress in time. The U.S. Secretary of the Treasury was also attending, so the upcoming debt-limit could also have been part of the discussion. It could be argued that the perspective itself at the meeting must have been too narrow—too small—even though the crisis demanded leadership.
Speaking after meeting with Congressional leaders, President Obama could have used the crisis to propose a seismic shift in American federalism in line with reducing the federal debt. Getty Images

On the floor of the U.S. Senate the day before, Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, criticized Republicans for failing to act. “We are here in Washington working while the members of the House of Representatives are out watching movies and watching their kids play soccer and basketball and doing all kinds of things. They should be here. I can’t imagine their consciences.” A day earlier, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Boehner, had urged the Democratic-controlled Senate to act first. With this kind of bickering, the failure of Congressional leaders and the president to reach a deal is all easy to understand.

However, beyond the immaturity, we should also bear in mind that the delegates at the U.S. constitutional convention in 1787 designed the federal government so as to impede agreement. Most of government was understood to be rightly conducted in the member states, rather than at the federal level. Specifically, the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches, and the bicameral legislature, provide ample opportunity for one political party to obstruct the proposals of another. Given this design, the underlying problem behind the fiscal mismanagement at the federal level can be said to be the increase in power, or competencies (in European terms), of the federal government. If legislating is difficult by design at the federal level, then adding powers to the federal government exacerbates the weakness. Put another way, the federal government was not designed to carry so much of the weight. So the problem is not just simply the particular office-holders at the federal level.

Accordingly, President Obama missed a great opportunity at the meeting at the White House with Congressional leaders. Rather than being oriented to what minimal legislation could pass both chambers to avert the tax increases and budget cuts that would significantly reduce the federal deficit in 2013, the president could have presided over the system as a whole. Specifically, he could have proposed that much of the domestic functions of the federal government be transferred entirely to the states. The federal budget could be slashed, and taxes held firm so any resulting surpluses could be used to reduce the federal debt.

To be sure, the media would doubtless claim that the federal leaders had admitted failure in handing power back to the states. Obama could have made the point, however, that he and the others were working against a federal design designed for them to meet obstruction after obstruction—swimming up-stream, in effect. “We are not super humans,” he could have pleaded.

A more serious criticism would be that whether or not a given state takes over a certain federal domestic program would be up to the state government. Some programs, such as social security, foodstamps, Medicare and Medicaid, may be too important to be applied only in some states. The shift here could be in terms of the federal contribution. The real obstacle is the fallacious assumption that in a federal system each state must be on the same level economically and in terms of what residents get from government. This assumption violates the dual-sovereignty attribute of modern federalism. In other words, the assumption treats a federal system as if it were merely a state.

Another objection would be that state taxes would be likely to rise while federal taxes stay constant to generate the surpluses to pay down the federal debt. However, this is merely to say we should no longer live beyond our means. That some states would have more government than others means that state taxes would increase to various extents, depending on the state. As of the end of 2012, California had a 10% income tax while Florida, Texas and Alaska had none. It could be argued that given state differences, the tax difference should be even more—with Oklahoma relying on private health insurance, for example, while Massachusetts goes on with universal health-care subsidized by the government. The addition of other domestic policy areas to state government would likely increase the difference in terms of government between states like Oklahoma and Massachusetts.

The resulting increase in political diversity in the U.S. would more closely fit the different political/ideological cultures—Oklahoma’s being quite distinct from Oregon’s and New York’s being distinct from Nevada’s. The one-size-fits-all assumption underlying so much of the federal encroachment does not fit with the scale of the United States—a virtual empire. In fact, the fiscal imbalance at the federal level can be viewed as a manifestation of the political imbalance between the federal and state governments.

The federal system is out of balance. In addressing this problem rather than merely symptoms such as the "fiscal cliff," the debt-ceiling, and the huge deficits themselves, President Obama could have transcended the fixation on averting the fiscal cliff by enacting transformational leadership in order to restore balance to American federalism. While not a perfect or flawless solution, realigning the federal balance of power could have set the United States on a more viable trajectory forward in the long term, as evinced in reductions in the federal deficits and accumulated debt. If we do not trust the states to pick up the slack (as envisioned by the American founders), then we do not trust ourselves, in which case not even a federal government can save us from ourselves.


Reuters, “U.S. Congressional Leaders Meet President Over Fiscal Cliff,” Deutsche Welle, December 28, 2012.

José Manuel Barroso: Picking Romania’s Government?

On December 9, 2012, Romanian voters approved of the coalition of the then-current Prime Minister Victor Ponta, by a two-thirds majority. However, because Ponta had been in a bitter political feud with President Traian Basescu—Ponta’s coalition tried and failed to impeach the president—it was not clear that the president would nominate Ponta for prime minister even though that post must be approved by the parliament. Basescu did wind up nominating Ponta. The interesting point here is that President Barroso of the European Commission publicly waded into the choice on behalf of Ponta. This is interesting because in a federal system, the internal politics of the state governments are, or should be, off limits to federal officials. Otherwise, the risk is that the state governments might become creatures of the federal government. In the E.U., however, this risk was at the time negligible.
                                                                                               Prime Minister Ponta of Romania: Propped up by Barroso?           exclusivnews.ro
In a statement that came after the official election results were published, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso sent a clear signal that Brussels believed Mr. Ponta should remain head of government. “President Barroso congratulates Victor Ponta for his electoral victory and that of the USL coalition. The Romanian people have made a clear choice in a democratic way,” he said. Barroso said he “looks forward to working with Prime Minister Victor Ponta and President Basescu, during the coming challenging years.” One EU official said that the statement was indeed a warning from Brussels that Basescu should not throw Romania back into a political crisis. Ponta won an “overwhelming victory” last weekend, the person said. Barroso “is essentially saying you now should nominate this person.” To be sure, there was a warning for Mr. Ponta too. Barroso said he welcomed “the commitment by all Romania’s political actors to consolidating the rule of law and respecting democratic checks and balances.”
The European Union has a legitimate interest in the state governments being based on the rule of law and having a democratic basis. In the U.S., each state must be a republic. Whether in the basic law or de facto, this requirement also applies in the E.U. The assumption is that a dictator running a state would hardly put up with “meddling” from the federal level. Also, the state leaders have a powerful role at the federal level, so the processes by which the states select their leaders are important from the E.U.’s standpoint. Moreover, both the E.U. and U.S. are ensconced in democratic values, and the respective unions have a legitimate role in cementing this basis. Even so, for Barroso to “remind” the president of a state of his duty to nominate a particular person as prime minister is too invasive. Barroso would have been wiser to watch from the side and make the statement after Basescu’s decision. Since Ponta’s coalition had won two-thirds of the vote, another person being nominated would probably have simply been rejected by the parliament and the president would have to nominate someone else. If at that point Basescu would have decided to ignore the parliament’s vote, then the “rule of law” and “democratic basis” interests of the E.U. would have given Barroso ample legitimacy to pressure Basescu.

Laurence Norman, “Barroso Wades Into Romania,” The Wall Street Journal, December 24, 2012.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Pot in Colorado: Getting High on American Federalism

On November 6, 2012, Colorado’s citizens approved with a 55% majority a marijuana-legalization measure that allows residents over the age of 21 to possess up to an ounce. The measure also allows for the commercial growing and selling of pot. More than a month later, the government of Douglas county in Colorado passed a law prohibiting companies from growing or selling cannabis. Meanwhile, the U.S. law continued to make the growth, sale, possession or use of pot illegal. Over all, it would seem to be a case of federalism as a pretzel of sorts, all twisted up into itself. This case study can be used to point to a more perfect union in terms of federalism.
The pot leaf.   source: Mother Jones (who else)
The complete essay is at "Is the E.U. a Federal System?"

Morsi: Presiding or Partisan on the Constitution?

Appealing for unity after the controversial ratification of a draft constitution in December 2012, President Morsi of Egypt pledged in a televised address to respect the one-third of the electorate that had voted against the proposed constitution. He claimed that “active patriotic opposition” should not annoy the president or the people in a democracy. I contend that the office of president should not be of the sort that would have partisan opposition, ideally at least. That is to say, presiding means safeguarding the process itself, as well as the good of the whole, rather than pushing a partisan agenda. That Morsi was on record in support of the partisan-drafted proposal undercut his role as presider in chief. Given the innate instability of a nascent democracy, the role for a presider “above the fray” was particularly valuable in Egypt at the time. Morsi fell short in this regard, and thus put the fragile democracy at risk.
                                                                    President Morsi speaking behind the seal of Egypt, suggesting a "good of the whole" orientation.     source: csmonitor
In his address, Morsi said, “We don’t want to go back to the era of the one opinion and fabricated fake majorities.” Such an era is the extreme of a partisan president. The presiding president, in contrast, transcends opinions and even majorities, being oriented to the long-term interest of the republic itself. Literally, to preside means to “stand before,” as exemplified by George Washington’s officiating role at the constitutional convention in the United States in 1787. He resisted the urge to “trade on his stature” to advance one or another proposal until the last day, when he suggested that a U.S. House district of 40,000 rather than 30,000 would be insufficiently representative.  Had Morsi followed Washington’s example as the draft Egyptian constitution was being proposed and ratified, Egypt might have had a more credible person to hold up the fragile democracy so it would take root rather than succumb to partisan strife.
While pursuing a partisan path is undoubtedly tempting for a president, the costs are often ignored or hardly transparent. In Morsi’s case, his invitation for the opposition to join a dialogue was met by Husseain Abdel Ghani’s comment that the invitation was merely Morsi’s “dialogue with himself.” Only by standing above the proposed draft could the president have had enough credibility to effect a reconciliation. It was not enough for him to move to the political center after the ratification had been secured.
Instead of being invested in the draft, Morsi could have focused on “the big picture” in terms of how much consensus is necessary for a constitution to be something more than a partisan-approved document. Put another way, Morsi could have been oriented to the process by which the partisan-dominated draft could have been further modified such that at least part of “the opposition” would have been on board. Unlike a law, a constitution should have more than a majority faction’s stamp on it. Because most of a society should be behind a convention, it should not be dominated either in its formulation or ratification by the majority faction, or else follow-up work is warranted. Here is where a presiding president can come into the picture, being oriented to the society as a whole—to which a constitution rightly corresponds.
In short, Morsi may have approached the draft constitution as though it were a law rather than a constitution. Advancing the document that was dominated by his party in being formulated, he missed the opportunity to seek a wider massaging of the document into a final form. A similar mistake occurred in the American case as the convention there refused to consider proposed amendments from the countries’ ratifying conventions—some of which had sizable anti-federalist representation. Had this minority been assuaged, perhaps the resulting document might have had more safeguards against political consolidation at the expense of the governments of the member states.
Washington, himself a federalist, missed the opportunity to suggest on the last day of the convention that it would be in the long-term interest of the United States for the states to send new delegates to another convention for the purpose of considering amendments proposed by the ratifying conventions because a viable constitution should be something more than reflecting one perspective—as any one perspective contains blind spots. Moreover, incorporating a minority’s concerns could provide a check against the tyranny of the cultural artifacts of the age. A resulting document would be more likely to stand the test of time.
Similarly, by the way, an academic treatise can only be determined to be a classic after the scholar’s age has passed because only then—in another culture, in effect—can the artifacts of the author’s own be fully transparent. Like a good scholar being oriented at least in part to readers not yet born, a presiding president is oriented to a process most likely to render a constitution into a classic. Of course, it would be impossible for such a presider to ever know if he (or she) has been successful. The best such a president can do is to take pains that the process not succumb to expediency. Having such a perspective, such a president should be indifferent toward the various partisan agendas, even that of his (or her) own party. From the standpoint of such a presidential viewpoint, partisan agendas are merely the fleeting vanities of vanities.


David Kirkpartick, “Morsi Admits ‘Mistakes’ in Drafting Egypt’s Constitution,” The New York Times, December 27, 2012.