An Urban's Rural View

Bill Northey, Checked and Unchecked

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Everyone applauded Bill Northey's appointment as undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural service, yet the Senate took four months to confirm him. The delay was because Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas put a "hold" on the nomination. Cruz didn't question the former Iowa agriculture secretary's qualifications. Northey was just a convenient hostage, leverage for Cruz's demands for a White House meeting on ethanol policy.

On Feb. 27, the White House meeting was held, Cruz released the hold and Northey was confirmed. Corn farmers, understandably wary of where the Texas senator wants to take ethanol policy, may be tempted to see his use of the hold as yet another example of Washington dysfunction.

What kind of crazy political system, they might ask, allows a single senator to block a widely admired public servant from filling a critical USDA position, and keep blocking him for months on end? No wonder Congress can't get anything done.

Rest assured as you read what I'm about to say that I am not defending Cruz's hold -- or anyone else's, for that matter. Even some of the most devout defenders of Senate traditions think the practice has gotten out of hand in recent decades. I certainly do.

Remember, though, that the Senate exists to counter legislative rushes to judgment and ensure minority voices are heard. That was the founders' vision for it.

Consider: The founders set the minimum age of senators higher, thinking older would mean wiser. They gave senators six-year terms, versus House members' two, to shield them from constant re-election pressures and allow them to exercise mature judgment.

The founders staggered senatorial elections so that two-thirds of the members of any Senate would continue into the next, providing continuity. They gave each state two senators regardless of population to prevent big states from steamrollering small ones.

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Deliberativeness, then, is in the Senate's DNA. So is the right of an individual senator to stand athwart progress.

Did Cruz take this right past the boundary line of reasonableness? Arguably yes, and we're within our rights as citizens to complain when the Senate's traditions are abused. It’s a shame to take four months to approve an uncontroversial nominee like Bill Northey. But do we really want to scuttle those traditions because they stand in the way of getting things done?

Our political system wasn't built for efficiency. It was built to prevent the rise of tyranny. We have a slow-moving Senate for the same reason we have three branches of government and a Bill of Rights -- to keep governmental power in check.

The autocratic regimes that are America's rivals -- Russia and China -- have much more efficient systems. They're unhindered by such checks and balances as laws that apply to the governors as well as the governed, administrative procedures requiring notice and opportunity to comment, courts that can overturn laws and executive actions and Senates that must work around filibusters and holds.

As a result, these rivals can change a policy faster than our president can post a tweet. They can build infrastructure or upgrade their military capacity in months while we spend years mired in debate. They increasingly pose an ideological challenge to democracy and the rule of law, tempting other countries to follow their lead.

Before those countries do, they might want to look again at Russia and China.

In Russia, one man rules -- Vladimir Putin. And, wonder of wonders, he has become, by one estimate, the world's richest man (…), with a net worth of $200 billion, more than Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos combined. Ordinary Russians aren't doing as well. Poverty is rife. The rich must kowtow or risk expropriation.

Indeed, those who dare to cross Putin put their lives in danger. For a more detailed understanding of the murderous kleptocracy Putin runs, read Bill Browder's book "Red Notice" (…).

Bottom line: Potential rulers of other countries might want to emulate Russia. Average citizens, not so much.

China's autocrats have done better, creating a vibrant economy that has elevated hundreds of millions out of poverty. But China's relatively good governance may be nearing an end.

The era of rapid growth began after the death of Mao Zedong, when China's top leaders agreed that one-man rule had been catastrophic and erected barriers against it happening again. Now it's happening again. Xi Jinping, China's current leader, has smashed the barriers and maneuvered to set himself up to rule for life.

This poses short-run problems for the country. Under Xi, China has become more belligerent and repressive and the government has intruded more in the economy. In the name of fighting corruption, he has purged his political enemies.

The longer-run looks even more problematic. Repression breeds more repression, and the intrusions in the economy threaten to undermine investment and growth. And when Xi finally goes, the struggle to succeed him could be violent and destabilizing.

The way America's political system works today is far from perfect. Big problems go unsolved. The system is designed to protect minority rights and prevent hasty mistakes, but sometimes it seems to prevent any action at all.

But given a choice between an excess of checks and balances and an almost complete absence of them, most Americans would not choose to make their country more like Russia or China. In that preference they would be well-justified.

Urban Lehner can be reached at


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