We Are Experiencing Institutional Difficulties
At least among liberal bloggers, it’s become a matter of conventional wisdom that Congress – and particularly the Senate – is fundamentally broken. Matthew Yglesias regularly points out our system’s absurdities, and various commentators have written very smart posts about our system’s complete inability to adequately address long-term challenges.
Here at the League, Mark Thompson has written a great post detailing both a serious problem with our institutional arrangement and its potential solution. I’m not going to do much block-quoting (though I recommend reading the whole thing), but it suffices to say that Mark wants to make the presidency and Congress more accountable for their failures. That is, as it stands, even though legislation originates in and is written by Congress, the outsized role of the presidency means that in the public eye, it’s the president who is to blame for failed or ineffective legislation, even if the prerogative lies with the legislature. Mark’s solution then, is to nationalize elections for the Speaker of the House, in hopes that having a nationally recognized leader of the House would focus criticism where it rightly belongs. Here’s Mark in his own words:
The most obvious reason why this proposal would greatly reduce regulatory capture and the growth of Executive Power is that it would give voters someone to hold accountable specifically for the passage of legislation. Under our current system, narrow local interests are able to turn national legislation into little more than a giant rent-seeking operation, while the scope of the legislation becomes severely watered down. There is no one to hold accountable for this – if your district gets none of the rent-seeking, you have to be content with “well, it’s better than nothing,” or “well, at least my Congresslizard voted against it.”
Mark’s diagnosis focuses on the problem of accountability and I understand why: as long as its virtually impossible to hold Congress responsible for its failures, we will continue to play this silly game where we pretend that electing a new president will have some measurable effect on Congress’ ability to pass actual legislation, rather than the thinly veiled-giveaways to corporate or parochial interests that passes for legislation. That said, I’m not sure if increased accountability – through Mark’s solution or any other – should be our first concern. Before we try to steer Congress towards greater accountability, I think we should first attempt to steer Congress towards greater responsiveness. That potentially far-reaching legislation is nearly always tamed and de-fanged is partially (or even mostly) a product of the huge number of veto points that exist within our system, including extra-constitutional requirements like the filibuster.
I’ve argued this before and it’s worth restating here: in the absence of a tremendous amount of consensus, any given bill needs to appease a huge number of stakeholders in order for it to become law. For small bills this isn’t a huge problem, as the stakes aren’t terribly high. But for something like health care reform (or soon enough, emissions reduction), it becomes a nearly insurmountable obstacle. Beginning at the committee level, hostile (or even merely self-interested) legislators can demand concessions which, more often than not, weaken the legislation rather than strengthen it. As the bill ascends through Congress, it runs into more and more of these potential veto points and each point, it becomes weaker and weaker, until it has little consequence and bears little resemblance to its original form.
The broader problem, of course, is that this has an incredible distortionary effect on policy-making. Lately, quite a few conservative reformers (like our own E.D. Kain) have lambasted Democrats for not supporting measures like Wyden-Bennet in health care (which would have actually restructured the health care system, for the better) or a straightforward carbon tax as a means to reduce emissions. What each of them miss, I think, is the fact that legislators “enter the game” aware of the veto points that exist, the concessions they have to make, and the incredibly divisive political moment we live in. They are aware that our system requires a base-level of ideological consensus in order for meaningful legislation to make its way through, and in the absence of that consensus they craft legislation to be as inoffensive as possible, in order to up the chance that their bill will reach the end of the process intact (rather than a pale, hollow shell of itself). In the real world, what this means is that even if legislators know of a better, simpler policy – like the carbon tax – there is no incentive to pursue it, because there isn’t enough consensus to overcome the institutional barriers in place. The only alternative is to bribe each of the gatekeepers, in hopes that they’ll let you pass through unmolested.
Accountability is nice, but absent further institutional reform, it still leaves you with that basic problem (albeit slightly reduced). Better would be to reduce or eliminate some of those barriers, as to make better legislation possible in the first place. A system where committees are weaker, majorities are stronger and obstructionism harder is a system that incentivizes better legislation, as each member knows that their bill can make it to the floor in more or less its original state. It’s a system where there are fewer opportunities for capture by special or parochial interests, and it’s a system that actually empowers presidents to pursue their agendas. If then we need to nationalize Speaker elections, then let’s do it. But like I said, before any of that, let’s make sure that we have a system that can actually work.