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A Centrist Approach
May 13, 2011
With Responses From
May 13, 2011
7 Min read time
We can, and must, make better sausage in the factory of Congress.
It’s an honor to play intellectual tennis with so many top professionals. Each return of service made me scramble. I only wish for extended volleys so that we could determine, once and for all, who has the best ideas for fixing Congress.
Almost all the commentators agree that Congress is broken, but contrarian John Geer does make a valiant defense of polarization—or “party responsibility”—in Congress, believing it leads to increased voter interest and participation. Geer likes debunking conventional wisdom, as he did in his important 2006 book on attack ads, In Defense of Negativity. I worry, however, that he gives political parties too much credit for taking principled stands. I see political parties that raise money from the same corporations, shift with the same political winds, love their incumbents more than their country, and misbehave in the same way on the House floor. There are some differences between the parties, but the parties exaggerate them just as Coke and Pepsi do, spending fortunes advertising nearly identical products.
Norm Ornstein helps us measure polarization when he shows that, for the first time, the parties in Congress have almost no ideological overlap. This despite the fact that most voters are centrists. Ornstein, the dean of congressional observers, also decries perpetual campaigning, whether to remain in Congress or to rise within it. He wins my prize for proposing the boldest measures for changing congressional culture. Getting citizens to show up at the polls (as in Australia) and getting members of congress to live near each other (in Washington, D.C.) would do wonders to improve moderation and civility.
Nick Nyhart shares with Ornstein and me the belief that perpetual campaigning and fundraising have damaged policymaking. To his credit, he describes the only specific legislation for fundamental reform, the Fair Elections Now Act, which would enable candidates to fund campaigns with small local contributions, subsidizing grassroots fundraising with public financing. It is disappointing that there are so few other pending proposals for campaign-finance reform.
Kenneth Shepsle and Kathryn Pearson provide valuable historical explanations for the current structure of the House of Representatives. Shepsle’s broader analysis draws lessons from earlier speakerships—Joe Cannon’s autocracy and Sam Rayburn’s collegiality. Pearson gives a more detailed and recent look at how internal groups such as the Steering and Policy and Rules Committees can alter the way the House performs. Shepsle and Pearson implicitly give us hope that our ever-changing Congress can still morph back into a better institution.
Stephen Ansolabehere takes us from the low point of the parties in the 1970s to their dominance today. Unfortunately, achieving this dream of political scientists has not produced a better Congress, so Ansolabehere posits that both parties have “broken ideologies.” He’s right, reminding me of G.K. Chesterton’s aphorism: “The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”
Both John Samples and David Brady believe that I idealize the speakership of Tip O’Neill, although I cite that “imperfect but functional” era as proof that today’s Congress can improve simply by following once-familiar customs. They are entirely correct that the “good old days” were never that good. But the fact that Republicans were the minority party during the 1980s is a coincidence, not a necessary precondition for return to civility or informed policymaking. Samples suggests that my approach is backward-looking, though my proposals for reforming redistricting, combating the effects of Citizens United, and altering congressional pay seem so novel as to be potentially impractical. I am intrigued by Samples’s conceptual framework: problems of taxpayer consent, declarations of war, and government centralization—all fundamental constitutional issues that Congress routinely ignores.
Andrew Gelman pushes me back on my heels in order to look at Congress from a societal perspective. The messages that citizens receive from official and unofficial authorities create massive confusion both outside and inside Congress. The roller coaster economy and incomprehensible budget numbers have spread fear and loathing throughout the populace and made Congress’s job much more difficult.
In many ways the most challenging response is from my friend and colleague David Price. There is no one in Congress I respect more, yet his diagnosis of congressional ills differs markedly from mine. I chafe at strong speakers but not at strong presidents; Price is the reverse. I oppose earmarks; he defends them as an institutional prerogative. Fortunately, we agree that the Simpson-Bowles commission offers hope of saner federal budgets.
Performance Through Accountability
Is it unsportsmanlike to point out that few commentators respond to my interest in exploring merit pay for Congress? I am not claiming that I served an ace; it probably looks out-of-bounds, a shot that need not be taken seriously. I agree that merit pay is either “unworkable” or impossible to pass, just like almost every other major reform. But let me take another swing.
Early in the movement to pay teachers or doctors for performance, it was deemed impossible to measure what a child learned in class or how healthy a patient should be. To reward or punish teachers or doctors on that basis seemed ridiculous, and these are indeed difficult tasks. Similarly taxpayers and academics today have lost hope of incentivizing better congressional behavior, although, as I point out, special interests have been doing this for decades. I think it is obvious who gets more for their money. Must we continue to ignore the advantage that special interests possess?
Isn’t it disturbing that no one can say for sure where members of Congress stand on key policies?
The prevailing academic view seems to be that Congress will always be subjectively, not objectively, analyzed, without any real accountability for individual members or for the institution as a whole. Congress will always misbehave, and liberal analysts will respond with liberal critiques and conservative analysts with conservative critiques. There is no rule book, and there are no referees.
Perversely, the worse Congress acts, the more interesting it is to study. Criticism of congressional misbehavior is almost a sign of naïveté; informed observers cannot be too cynical—or permissive. Another Gilded Age would make great thesis material. The unspoken assumption appears to be that the country will survive almost any Congress. I hope this is true, but I am doubtful.
Isn’t it disturbing that no one can objectively answer simple questions such as, “who is a conscientious or a civil member?” or “which party really supports deficit reduction?” or “who opposes the conflict in Libya?” For more than half a century Congress has abandoned declarations of war, and has done so with impunity. Members dread the rare exceptions—the up-or-down vote on a clearly stated national issue—because all the public really knows is who gets re-elected, and which party has a majority. The rest is spin. Pundits and TV analysts trade anecdotes in order to project their own views onto the news. Congress has become a Rorschach test that reveals much more about the observer than the institution. Even the recent shift to parliamentary behavior has escaped public attention. It makes you wonder if gang activity in Congress would be noticed and condemned. Supporters of the winning gang are sure to condone the behavior.
The most useful part of pay-for-performance is deciding what to measure. This would finally open the black box of Congress. Voting is the only true voice of Congress, but congressional voting is so muddled and indecipherable that it is difficult to prove where members or parties stand. This is no accident. Why not curb logrolling and require clear standalone votes on major issues? President Reagan called for an end to omnibus legislation. Congress finally spotlighted and, for two years, has temporarily banned earmarks. Why not identify and limit other abuses? Yet tolerance for congressional subterfuge seems unlimited as long as your favorite political party remains in power.
If the Supreme Court operated like Congress, rulings would be unsigned dicta, with nothing to anchor the opinion. Such rulings would make it impossible to hold the justices or the Court accountable, or for lower courts or agencies to implement their decisions. How convenient for judicial reputations! How chaotic!
My critique of Congress is essentially “liberal”—too many special interests, too much money and polarization—and my solutions essentially “conservative”—disclosure of gerrymandering, corporate self-restraint, and merit pay. This centrist approach does not fit neatly into ideological boxes. Today’s polarized Congress makes it difficult to think across party lines or to understand and respect an adversary’s point of view.
Perhaps if we had more objective guidelines for proper behavior, more acceptance of responsibility, Congress could start repairing itself. After all, Congress has managed to fix itself, with mixed success, for more than two centuries, and it has always needed prompting. Today we seem to lack urgency for reform, objective role models, or criteria for improvement. And we can’t hear ourselves think for all the partisan noise.
We can, and must, make better sausage in the factory of Congress. To do that, we must learn how the legislative machines work and who is operating them well.
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May 13, 2011
7 Min read time
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