March 2015 Monthly Article – The U.S. System of Policymaking

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By Jerry Pacheco

On February 5, the U.S. Department of Commerce (USDOC) issued a press release stating that U.S. businesses exported $2.35 trillion in goods and services in 2014, breaking a record for the fifth year in a row. According to the release, new records were achieved in exports of capital goods, consumer goods, petroleum products, foods, feeds, beverages and automotive vehicles/parts. Exported goods accounted for $1.64 million, an increase of 2.7 percent. Service exports hit an all-time high of $710.3 billion. Leading categories in this sector included travel, transport, charges for the use ofintellectual property, and financial services.About a year ago, I was having a conversation with two Mexican friends of mine, one of whom has been involved in Mexican politics for decades, and the other who is a prominent businessperson. We were discussing the gridlock that has beset the U.S. Congress and how this has stymied the U.S. from implementing solutions on immigration, and funding of projects such as the expansion of international ports on the U.S.-Mexico border.

My friends ganged up on me and extolled how broken the U.S. system of governing was and how Mexico’s system was superior in making things happen much more quickly. Traditionally in Mexico, the executive branch has wielded more power than the legislative and judicial branches, and my friends argued that once the president or a state governor in Mexico decides to do something, everybody falls into place and the project takes off quickly. I tried to explain to them that at the national and state levels in the U.S., the Executive, Senate and House branches all tend to be relatively balanced when it comes to power. Even though things can move slowly, this is the U.S. way to build consent and ensure that good legislation takes place. However, their minds were made up and they were not persuaded by my argument.
Returning from Santa Fe at the end of the 2015 New Mexico Legislative Session, I remembered this conversation vividly as I drove the five hours from Santa Fe south to my Santa Teresa home. I was tired after having traveled up to New Mexico’s capital from the U.S.-Mexico border many times during the past 60 days to support and testify in favor of bills that bolster cross-border trade and the ability to recruit more industry to the region. I had put thousands of miles on my truck and finished multiple audio books traveling to and from the session.
I was depressed because a last-minute deal could not be reached on capital outlay, throwing the funding of badly needed infrastructure at the border into uncertainty. With the rapid industrial growth on New Mexico’s border with Mexico, roads that carry the increased commerce need to be repaired and reconstructed in order to spur more growth and job creation. The need to invest in border infrastructure is widely supported by policymakers, which made the outcome even more frustrating. I’m sure that had my two friends been with me, they would have grinned and said, “We told you so.”
Many people disparage U.S. politicians. Common complaints are that they are dishonest, corrupt, elitist, and constantly seeking the spotlight. Having participated in local state legislatures and U.S. Congress during the past 25 years, I have become well acquainted with the legislative process and the elements involved. I’ve spent time in the gallery watching the U.S. Senate in action. My first time was eye-opening and my perceptions of what I thought I would see were completely off mark. Watching the Senate was almost surreal in the sense that at times, only a few people will be in the chamber while a senator provides commentary or debate on a bill. These performances are often filmed and shown on CSPAN, where it appears that a lively debate, not a solo performance, is occurring.
Policymakers are constantly being jumped on, lobbied, and criticized by constituents and various association representatives, all seeking to influence the vote to their advantage. They live in constant spotlight of their activities, and the heat in the pressure cooker intensifies as a session goes on. I have a theory that once the pressure goes up, a person’s base personality starts to reveal itself. If a person is a bully, arrogant, weak, somebody who wants to be liked, or has susceptible morals, these traits come out during a session. This holds true not only for policymakers, but for the lobbyists, support staff and individuals who also are present.
By the end of a session, floor debate and committee meetings are going into the wee hours of the morning and through the weekends. The fatigue and frayed nerves start showing themselves. And this is where my view on U.S. policymakers differs from those who disparage this profession. I think it takes a special person to subject himself/herself and their families to the meat grinder of politics and dedicate so much time to trying to produce legislation that improves the lives of their constituency, and at the executive level, presiding over the result. I still get the sense that people involved in the legislative process are there because they want to do good for their communities, even if this results in extended debate that requires so much time.
The U.S. style of democracy and legislative process can look inefficient and archaic to many foreigners who can’t understand why a particular committee chairman/chairwoman can hold up a particular piece of legislation in defiance of their own party or of the executive branch.
Therein lies a key to the U.S. system: Checks and balances at multiple levels add timeto the formation of legislation via process, protocol and debate. However, this ensures that all voices that want to be heard will be heard, and that all sides have a hand in the process one way or the other.
Sure, it is nice to fantasize that issues dear to our hearts in a legislative session could be dealt with quickly, in a streamlined process – where protocol is suspended, and debate limited, but this is not our system of democracy. That being said, I think I will call up my two friends from Mexico and invite them for coffee to resume our conversation.