Has America become a libertarian's dream?
I was talking to political satirist P.J. O'Rourke when he made one of those curious remarks he's known for: "Gridlock's no problem. What really worries me is when there's consensus in Washington."
I had to think about that.
Considering that P.J. started out a Republican, became a Maoist during his college years, then took a turn toward libertarianism as he got close to retirement, it took me a moment to figure out what he meant: Gridlock is a libertarian's dream.
He had a point. When nothing gets done in Washington, by default we have smaller government. Politicians have less opportunity to meddle in the affairs of individuals when, day and night, they're bickering over whether Planned Parenthood should be part of the federal budget. Everyone knows that when the parents argue, the kids get away with murder.
But is Washington any more gridlocked today than it has been in the past? Or is this just something drummed up by pundits in the media?
Look at the numbers (see box). There has been an undeniable decline in the percentage of congressional bills that come to fruition.
According to Paul Singer of Roll Call, even more disturbing than a decrease in efficiency, is the nature of the bills themselves, "Of the 449 bills that became law in the 110th Congress, 144 of them - 32 percent - did nothing more than rename a federal building." Rename a federal building? Libertarians everywhere should be dancing in the streets.
Singer says the number of "ceremonial bills" is on a fast rise. During the 104th Congress, less than 10 percent of new bills were associated with renaming a building. Noting that the figure is 32 percent today, Singer concludes, "As the number of bills passed by Congress has declined, members appear to have taken to introducing bills as a way of establishing a public position on an issue or making a symbolic gesture."
If a decline in government effectiveness can produce the same results the Libertarian Party has been striving for since 1971, the "third largest political party in America" need no longer waste its time or money hosting lavish conventions and funding unsuccessful presidential campaigns. Government gridlock has done more to forward Libertarian objectives than anything else the party has tried.
But if Libertarians need another reason to adopt a new course, consider this: In 2008, their presidential nominee was Bob Barr, along with vice presidential hopeful Wayne Allyn Root. The party held a convention - complete with bands, balloons, noisemakers and signs - on May 22, 2008, at the Sheraton Hotel in Denver. After four days of fist-pounding speeches and six rounds of ballots, Barr and Root finally emerged as the victors. It was a suspenseful, neck-and-neck race to the finish line.
Yet despite crisscrossing the country and campaigning as vigorously as McCain, Palin, Obama and Biden, the Libertarian ticket received a little more than a half a million votes - less than one half of one percent of eligible voters.
And in case you're wondering how Libertarian candidates faired in previous elections, the answer is: about the same.
The Libertarian nominee in 2004 was Michael Badnarik (don't feel bad, I'd never heard of him either). Badnarik received just under 400,000 votes nationwide. In 2000, the party recycled Harry Browne, who had run in 1996. Browne received almost half a million votes the first time around but lost ground in 2000, capturing 100,000 fewer voters.
Looking ahead toward 2012, if party leaders are smart, they will urge Libertarians to immediately throw their support behind Barack Obama, then back every Tea Party candidate for Congress from here to kingdom come. This would ensure that infighting would continue, and as little as possible would be accomplished.
On the other hand, if winners knew when to quit, there'd be no such thing as Las Vegas or doubling down. It's more likely the Libertarian Party hasn't noticed they are getting what they wanted, albeit it not the way they planned. Someone ought to tell them.
Tracking legislation13,675 Bills introduced by the 111th Congress
2.8 Percentage of those bills enacted into law
14,042 Bills introduced by the previous 110th Congress
3.3 Percentage of those bills enacted into law
13,074 Bills introduced by the 109th Congress
3.5 Percentage of those bills enacted into law.
Rebecca D. Costa is author of "The Watchman's Rattle."