As any sports fan knows, coaches routinely “work the refs” by whining to them about their rulings. They don’t do this because the refs change the calls – they almost never do — but because they hope it makes the refs feel guilty or self-conscious enough that they give you a “make up call(s)” in the future.
Politicians do this same dance. Often because they aren’t objective enough to recognize a fair call when they see it, and often because they are executing a planned strategy to leverage future “make up calls,” politicians are also constantly whining to the non-partisan referees –- reporters, pundits, and budget analysts — of their political and policy “games”.
In the last couple of decades, conservatives have particularly spent huge amounts of time, energy and resources complaining about reporters. In my opinion, they’ve made substantial headway, a discussion for another day.
Working the refs doesn’t bother me. I wish that we could give Americans the functional equivalent of instant replay to analyse the rulings at hand, but working the refs is just good old-fashioned free speech. I like free speech.
But over the last few years, politicians have taken the act of working the non-partisan refs a step further. Now they not only work the refs, they replace the refs.
When they don’t like non-partisan news reporter, they replace them with new and highly partisan reporters (i.e Fox-News, MSNBC primetime). When they don’t like the pundits, they replace them with new highly partisan commentators (e.g. KTLK, KTNF).
Again, I don’t get too flipped out about this. Partisan commentary in itself is not such a bad thing, as long as it is recognized as such, and as long as the masses occasionally venture out of the echo chamber to consume objective sources.
But I do get flipped out about a much more recent development: Now when conservatives don’t like the non-partisan referees of the policymaking process – the non-partisan numbers crunchers – they increasingly ignore them, and effectively replace them with new and highly partisan analysts.
We’ve seen this at the federal level the last few years, where conservatives have started ignoring the long-respected non-partisan budget crunching referees of Congress, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), in favor of analysis from partisan sources like the CATO Institute or Reason Foundation. Politicians have always taken exception with CBO, but they never used to ignore CBO’s verdict.
As of this week, we are also seeing this happen at the Minnesota State Capitol, with conservatives ignoring the “fiscal notes” prepared by the mutually agreed upon non-partisan referees. As Minnpost’s Doug Grow explained today:
In something of a stunner, Republican legislative leadership said this morning that when they’re putting together their budget bills, they’re not necessarily relying on financial analyses from the Minnesota Management and Budget office, which traditionally has been seen as a nonpartisan body. Instead of relying on Management and Budget numbers, House Speaker Kurt Zellers said today that in some cases Republicans are turning to private financial consultants for advice.
There are a couple of troubling aspects of this. First, corporate analysts have a strong built-in bias. Corporations are aggressively working to keep their taxes as low as possible to maximize their profits. Agree or disagree with that viewpoint, that’s a strong bias. Appointing corporate financial analysts to be the fiscal referees of our representative democracy is like appointing one team’s cheerleader to be the ref of a basketball game. Bad idea.
Incidentally, it would be just as dangerous if liberal lawmakers start rejecting non-partisan fiscal notes, and instead appointed the AFL-CIOs analysts to be the finance referees of the process. Again, bad idea.
For our democratic process to remain stable and non-violent, there has to be one mutually acceptable referee that everyone agrees to accept, even while reserving the right to go all Bobby Knight on them. Someone has to wear the stripes and players and coaches have to accept the non-partisan rulings, or the game can get very chaotic and ugly in a hurry.