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Katherine McFate

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The Biggest Loser in the Debt Ceiling Deal: American Democracy

Posted: 08/09/11 04:48 PM ET

Like everyone else in the country, at OMB Watch, we are trying to find a sliver of hope in the outcome of the debt ceiling debacle. We are relieved that default was avoided, since the immediate repercussions could have been worse than the volatility we've seen in recent days. But the debt deal effectively steals the instruments government has to try to heal our wounded economy. Financial analysts across the globe have noticed, and anxieties about the effects of sputtering U.S. consumer demand are deepening.

As critical as the economic impacts of the deal are, the debt ceiling game of chicken was a political earthquake, and its aftershocks could keep us reeling indefinitely. America's style of democracy, admired (or sometimes criticized) for its stability, is looking shaky.

Effective democracy requires an informed, engaged citizenry, honest debate, and elected representatives working in the public interest. These elements were not in evidence last week.

The American people are angry that big banks were rescued but not local businesses or homeowners. Americans told Congress they wanted jobs, but the only proposals under discussion were cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Our debt piled up because we gave huge tax cuts to the wealthy, went to war on borrowed money, and then revenues tanked when the housing bubble burst. The stimulus created or saved up to three and a half million jobs, but it wasn't big enough to fill the 8 million-job hole created by Wall Street's meltdown. Corporate taxes are at an all-time low; businesses have trillions to invest but won't until demand returns.

A majority of Americans of both parties believe revenues should be part of the budget deal. The public wants a debate on what the federal government can do to create jobs and right the economy. Instead of addressing these crucial issues, a determined minority is doing its best to undermine the government's ability to provide assistance to vulnerable Americans in this challenging economy and during future crises.

Anti-government ideologues have taken away a frightening lesson: that radical truculence by a small faction is a winning strategy. When elected officials fail to respond to the public's concerns, faith in government plummets. When unemployment benefits are held hostage to tax cuts for the rich, public cynicism about who our democratic institutions serve grows. When elected officials who vote their conscience or the values of their constituents are threatened with primary challenges financed by outside special interests, the principle of representative democracy erodes. And when public trust in government bleeds out, anti-government forces gain strength.

Those of us who believe in democracy and know that public structures play a crucial role in life have to push back on the cynicism. We need more participation, more citizens scrutinizing the process. What's at stake is too important to give in to cynicism and disillusionment. Twelve people cannot possibly represent the unique needs and diverse interests of the American populace. The potential for special interest pressure on the Committee of Twelve will be enormous. The American people need to be vigilant; they need to make themselves heard.

Even if our party structures and congressional rules are stuck in the 19th century, our technology is not. We have digital video and cell phones. We have the Internet. We have the ability to live-stream every hearing of the Committee of Twelve to libraries, college campuses, and school rooms across the country. Reports and documents can be posted online.

Every meeting a committee member has with a lobbyist or powerful interest group should be posted online. Financial disclosure statements of the Committee of Twelve and their staff should be posted online. Campaign contributions should be publicly posted within 24 hours of receipt. The committee's final report should be posted 72 hours before it is voted on. A running public comment should start now. Let's have a giant civics lesson in public budgets.

Government of the people requires an electoral system that produces responsible, rational representatives who care more about people than ideological purity. Government by the people in the modern world mandates modern communication tools that invite people into decision making instead of shutting them out. Government for the people only happens when citizens fiercely defend their right to know and to participate. So read up on the budget deal. Demand transparency. Weigh in.

Democracy demands it.

Note: Our colleagues at the Sunlight Foundation have brought together a coalition of open government groups, including OMB Watch, in a call for "Super Committee" transparency. Check out the groups' recommendations on Sunlight's blog.