October 20, 2009

The Disrespect for Democracy that is Binding Arbitration

Carroll Andrew Morse

More vigorously than at anytime since the 1960s, America's political left has been promoting its two-point all-purpose plan for solving domestic problems: More government spending (point 2) paid for by higher taxes (point 1). At the Federal level, the focus of applying this philosophy has been on healthcare. At the state level in Rhode Island, look for education "funding formula" advocates to ramp up their push for higher state taxes, so that spending can be raised in some communities. And at the local level...

Well, at the local level, the story is a bit different. Members of the progressive/union alliance in RI are afraid that local elected officials are not on board with the idea that everything can be fixed with higher taxes and more spending, so they've decided that the influence of local elected officials on municipal budgets must be reduced. Specifically, at the behest of the leadership of Rhode Island's core-left, the state legislature this week could vote to impose binding arbitration procedures on cities and towns unable to agree upon teacher contract terms within a certain time-frame. Such action would remove true decision-making authority concerning the largest single item (personnel) of the largest chunk of most local budgets (school system) from elected officials and turn it over to electorally unaccountable panels of arbitrators.

As much as binding arbitration is intended to minimize the influence of locally elected officials, it is also intended to minimize the influence of the voters who elect those officials -- an intent that runs contrary to the most basic notions of self-government. Any meaningful definition of democracy, from the classical ideas of the Enlightenment to the starker, more cynical theories of modern political science, involves the idea that actual decision makers must face the possibility of being replaced by election when the public disapproves of the decisions that are made. And since the late 17th century, dating back to the English Bill of Rights, a fundamental tenet of democratic rule has been that decisions to raise revenue properly belong to a body of freely elected representatives of the people. To replace a system of electing fiscal decision makers with a system where the role of the people is mostly to choose a panel that will present their case to an electorally unaccountable final decision maker is to disregard the principles and ideals of centuries of democratic practice.

I don't know if binding arbitration advocates shrug or laugh when asked to consider the non-democratic nature of the means they are willing to use to advance their agenda, but what is abundantly clear is that they believe that government needs the power to spend more money even when the elected representatives of the people don't want to -- and that when the democratic process doesn't facilitate an agenda of more spending, then a different kind of process is needed that will.

Fortunately, we still live in a country and in a state where the marginalization of public influence on local spending decisions can occur only for as long as the public is willing to accept it, i.e. only for as long as the public is willing to re-elect legislators (and city and town councilors) who approve of replacing democratic rules with a system of governance that transfers power to unelected arbitrators. Keep this last point in mind -- because if you don't like the decision the Rhode Island legislature makes on binding arbitration this week, it can be easily reversed by the legislature that is seated following the 2010 elections.

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That's a great post. Very succintly put.

Posted by: Robespierre at October 20, 2009 11:20 AM

"it can be easily reversed by the legislature that is seated following the 2010 elections. "

Not really. A great many of those seats are unopposed. People only have two choices, put the bum back in or don't vote. We need viable candidates to take the seats away from those who aren't getting the job done. We need a party and infrastructure to support these people. Heck, I can throw my name into the race, get the signatures to get on the ballot and walk door to door, but with no money to advertise and get the message out, it's a nearly unwinnable situation. People go for name recognition. That's something that you either buy or work your way up to. I think working your way up through the ranks is the way to go, but unfortunately, we don't have enough people in more local seats who are both interested in running and are available to run, who have the name recognition in their towns.

The best thing the voters can do is try to cut the head off the snake. Go for the big names and knock them off, if possible. Go get a Fox, Constantino, DaPonte, Connors, Gemma, Paiva-Weed knocked out. Shock the state again like when Harwood lost and when Alves lost and Montalbano lost. Keep that momentum going. If the lesser lights see that those people are all swept out of office, they might listen a little more closely, or in 2 years, their name will be on that list.

Posted by: Patrick at October 20, 2009 11:31 AM

Spot on Andrew!
Excellent narrative.

Posted by: Tim at October 20, 2009 2:14 PM

Exactly right, Andrew. Awesome post.

How is it defensible to remove the power of taxation from elected officials and place it in the hands of people who are not elected (and usually demonstrably biased)?

Posted by: Monique at October 20, 2009 8:15 PM
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