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What Happens When Congress Fails to Do Its Job?

- March 30, 2010

That it is a title of a Newsweek essay by Ezra Klein. Full disclosure: I talked with Ezra about this piece as he was writing it and I am quoted in it (more on my oh-so-profound and articulate insight below).

Ezra deserves praise for, as is his frequent practice, incorporating some political science. To wit:

bq. But the rise of the filibuster is not just a case of rules-gone-wild: it’s evidence of a broader polarization in the United States Congress. As the party heretics lost or switched sides, Republicans and Democrats found themselves more often in agreement with themselves and less often in agreement with each other. According to the political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal, Democrats and Republicans now vote against each other more regularly than at any time since Reconstruction.

bq. As the Reconstruction watermark suggests, polarized parties are often the result of a polarized country. In this case, it’s the opposite. We are no more divided than we were in the 1950s and ’60s, when civil rights and the Vietnam War and the feminist revolution split the country.

A sidenote at this point, which speaks to my “ungate my heart” post from a while back: while Ezra’s discussion here no doubt draws on various sources and conversations, in our conversation he asked me about political science research on polarization but didn’t know everything that was out there and, moreover, didn’t have access to it. So I sent him an email after we hung up, including various URLs and pdfs. I sent him two overviews of the debate, one by Marc Hetherington and another by Morris Fiorina and Samuel Abrams. I sent him the point-counterpoint of Alan Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders and Fiorina, Abrams, and Jeremy Pope. Plus a link to Sean Theriault’s book. This is hardly an exhaustive list, of course. My point is simply that an extensive and, within political science circles, reasonably well-known literature about polarization has developed. And it is largely invisible, even to someone like Ezra, who cares much more about academic research than the average journalist or commentator.

Now back to Ezra’s piece. As he has done before, he cites Frances Lee’s new book:

bq. But it makes sense to us. The president is the main character in the media’s retelling of our politics. His approval ratings are more important than the approval ratings of Congress even when we are voting only for congressmen. And it’s getting worse: the political scientist Frances Lee has found that on average, each successive Congress spends a larger percentage of its time on the president’s agenda than did its predecessor. The result is that there’s the president’s party in Congress, which mostly tries to help him out, and the opposition party, which tries to hinder him.

So kudos to Ezra. He truly deserves some sort of medal from the American Political Science Association.

Now let me be churlish and raise a few questions about his argument:

* Ezra cites various ways in which Congress is ceding policymaking to other actors: an independent commission tackles Medicare reforms, the EPA may end up tackling climate change, the Fed tackles the bailout after TARP proves insufficient, an independent commission is empowered to tackle the deficit (and then only by executive order), the president tackles national security. One might ask two questions in response. First, doesn’t Congress sometimes want it this way? That is, recourse to outside actors may not be the unfortunate consequence of Congressional inaction, but the _actual intent_ of Congress. In fact, given that reforming Medicare and cutting the deficit and bailing out banks necessitate politically unpopular actions, isn’t it even rational for Congress to delegate these tasks? Second, who is going to make the better decision in such circumstances, Congress or a commission? Might we rather have a fully empowered independent body that can rise above petty politics?

* Ezra’s account of the problems in “Congress” is really an account of problems in the Senate: minority obstruction, the filibuster, etc. Dynamics in the House are far in the background. Of course, in the House the situation is quite different. The same trend in partisan polarization has made the parties more willing to empower party leaders — this is John Aldrich and David Rohde’s conditional party government theory — and this has led the majority party under both Republican and Democratic control to largely exclude the minority party from governing. So when Ezra says apropos of health care reform and Social Security reform “at no point did the minority party come to the table and propose a serious alternative,” well, why should they? Minority alternatives are D.O.A. in recent Congresses on many issues, especially in an era of strong Speakers, closed rules, and the like.

And this gets to a final problem with regard to any attempt at reform. Here is Ezra quoting me:

bq. You have to do the John Rawls thing. Go behind the veil of ignorance. Figure out the system we’d want without knowing who will be in charge or what they will be doing.

Yes, that is me, boiling down _A Theory of Justice_ to “the John Rawls thing.” Trenchant. Anyway, I think it makes sense to do so, if you want people to reason in ways that go beyond their immediate partisan self-interest. Ezra proposes a bipartisan commission to reform the rules, but whose recommendations don’t take effect for 6 or 8 years, at which point no one can know who’ll be in the majority. And that’s all fine and good.

The problem arises because the necessary reforms, once again, only involve the Senate — e.g., abolishing the filibuster and holds. Ezra wants to make the Senate more majoritarian, but it’s pretty clear that majoritarianism, at least in the House, is at odds with his ultimate goal:

bq. The irony is that getting rid of the rules meant to ensure bipartisanship may actually discourage partisanship. Obstructionism is a good minority strategy as long as it actually works to stymie the majority’s agenda and return you to power. But if it just means you sit out the work of governance while the majority legislates around you, your constituents and interest groups will eventually begin demanding that you include them in the process. And that’s as it should be: we hire legislators to legislate. We need a system that encourages them to do so.

Letting the majority rule is not a recipe for discouraging partisanship. If anything, what the House tells us is that a strong majority party will do very little to “include” the minority, and this leaves the minority with little recourse but to obstruct and hope the voters agree.

You can empower majorities or you can promote bipartisanship. It’s awfully hard to do both.