Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, Macdonald-Laurier Institute author F.H. Buckley says an attempt to empower backbench members of Parliament, such as through the Reform Act, is a terrible idea.
That would bring us closer to the broken system in the United States, where powerful congressmen are more concerned with porkbarreling their constituents than looking out for the good of the country.
The op-ed builds on the ideas in Buckley’s latest book, The Once and Future King, which debunks the myth that the United States’ system of government is more conducive to freedom than Canada’s.
On Sept. 30, MLI will host the Canadian launch for the book at the RCAF Officers’ Mess at 158 Gloucester St. in Ottawa.
By F.H. Buckley, Sept. 19, 2014
American authors can be too easily impressed with what is taken as Europe’s superior culture. There’s a name for that. It’s called cultural cringe, the tendency to tug at one’s forelock before the more sophisticated writers of England and France.
Some Canadians have a similar cultural cringe, when it comes to what they see as the superior political institutions of the United States. We’ve seen that in the calls for Senate reform, and more recently in proposals to empower backbench MPs. What that would give us is something closer to the American congressional system, where congressmen have a power base separate from the national party.
That’s a terrible idea. The broken American system is the last model Canada should follow, and empowering backbenchers is no exception. What powerful congressmen have given the United States are pork-barrel earmarks. They’re great for the congressman’s district, but wasteful for the country as a whole. What one gets is the nearly empty John Murtha Airport in Johnstown, PA, or the 50-odd Robert Byrd Institutes in West Virginia. This explains the paradoxical polling figures about Congress and congressmen. We all hate Congress, pollsters tell us, but love our individual congressman. We love his ability to bring home the bacon, even if we recognize that the system that permits him to do so is corrupt.
Economists call this a “common pool” problem. It’s the same kind of problem one sees in overfishing in lakes and oceans, where people care about themselves but not about the country or the world as a whole. It’s also the kind of problem seen when we dump pollution onto our neighbour’s yard.
Congressional earmarks have been defended as a relatively small outlay — less than two percent of federal government spending in recent Congresses — but that understates the nature of the problem. A Congress composed of members primarily concerned to direct spending to their districts is not one that is likely to show much discipline in curbing total government spending. The Robert Byrds and John Murthas didn’t become masters of pork by worrying overmuch about financial deficits. This magnifies the obstacles to budget reform, and makes it all the more unlikely that Congress will rein in spending.
To reverse the common pool problem, what is needed is a grand coalition, a coalition of the whole of the voters, that will vote for the general welfare rather than the narrow interest of their congressional district. Discovering and empowering such a majority was the idea behind Bolingbroke’s idealized Patriot King, who governs “like the common father of his people … where the head and all the members are united by one common interest.”
We’re more likely to see that in Pierre Trudeau’s Parliament of Nobodies. When MP’s are “nobodies,” voters don’t expect them to bring any pork back to the riding. Instead, any pork comes from the national party, which has broader incentives than a John Murtha did. A national party in Parliament will seek to acquire a reputation that puts what it understands as the common, national good ahead of wasteful local projects.
That’s why my favourite MP is Ruth Ellen Brosseau, the unlikely candidate elected in the NDP’s 2011 Orange Wave. She might not possess Murtha’s legislative skills, but a Parliament of Brosseaus more closely resembles the idealized assembly described by Edmund Burke in his Address to the Electors of Bristol, an assembly “of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide.”
F.H. Buckley teaches at George Mason Law School in Arlington VA. His most recent book is The Once and Future King (Encounter Books, 2014). He will be in Ottawa on Sept. 30 for a launch hosted by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (macdonaldlaurier.ca/events).