« Shadow Banks Pose Major Threat to Financial Stability | Main | links for 2010-09-28 »

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Congress is Lame"

Ryan Avent says the institutional structure of Congress inhibits good policy:

Built to break, by Ryan Avent: ...Congress is lame. ... Why? ... Why is it so difficult to pass decent policy?

South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint warned Monday evening that he would block all legislation that has not been cleared by his office in the final days of the pre-election session. 

Bret Bernhardt, DeMint's chief of staff, said in an e-mail to GOP aides that his boss would place a hold on all legislation that has not been cleared by both parties by the end of the day Tuesday. 

Any senator can place a hold to block legislation - and overcoming that would require the Senate to take time-consuming steps to invoke cloture, which would require 60 votes.

This is a stupid rule. Why would the Senate adopt it? Well, as with most of today's procedural obstacles, it was put in place for a sensible reason—to pause the passage of legislation while senators from states directly affected had time to review the bill—but has come to be abused for partisan tactical purposes. The Senate is full of rules like this that can be used to bring business to a complete halt. Their use has, at various points in the past, gone from being frowned upon to being acceptable (or at least common). The filibuster falls into this category. Modern Americans may find it hard to believe that not so long ago contentious pieces of legislation passed the Senate with a simple majority vote. No longer.

Now, the story of why politics is so disappointing in America right now is more obviously more complicated than the increase in use of the Senate's procedural obstructions. But this is an important story. In economics, we understand that institutions—statutory and and cultural—have a powerful impact on economic outcomes. Incentive structures in institutions determine whether it's more profitable to invest or rent-seek. This in turn influences the allocation of capital, physical and human, which determines growth rates. And expected growth rates feed back into the decision of whether and where to invest...or rent-seek.

As observers of the political system, economists should take the incentives built into institutions seriously. Supermajoritarian rules limit accountability by driving a wedge between who is responsible for policy outcomes and who is held responsible. If opposition legislators have the ability to block bills, the failure of which will be laid on the ruling party, then there is no incentive for the opposition to bargain and compromise. If the legislature is sclerotic, then Congress will become less appealing to people interested in passing good policies and more appealing to those looking for a platform from which to demagogue. The result is an uptick in demagoguery, which makes Congress still less appealing to those interested in conducting actual business. ...

[P]eople choose whether to seek office based on the things they're likely to accomplish there, and they behave once in office according to the incentives they face. If government consistently disappoints, it's not the fault of the men and women in Congress. It's the institution itself. And the conversation should become less about which party should be in charge and more about which rules need to be reformed.

But why is it that "If opposition legislators ... block bills, the failure ... will be laid on the ruling party..."? Is this due to problems with the institutional structure of Congress, or with the media reporting on the issues? Is it due to a better GOP noise machine? Or is it due to something else entirely such as the tactical decisions made by Democrats. Democrats seem unable to do the simplest things the GOP does so well such as giving bills catchy names that imply a vote against the legislation is a vote against America, let alone pursue more complicated coordinated strategies. If the roles were reversed and Democrats were obstructing policies the GOP was trying to pass, I'm not so sure it would be the GOP that would be blamed.

Update: Via email:

Hey Mark -
Saw your post. FWIW political scientists think the reason the ruling party is blamed is that the public doesn't follow the mechanics of Congress lately and tends to hold the president's party accountable for the state of the country in midterms. Process-based explanations (they didn't let us pass our agenda) don't tend to work, nor do catchy bill names or spin tactics etc. In some ways, this is more encouraging than what pessimists say about democracy -- the public really does respond to results (very broadly defined) and isn't as easily manipulated as people think (at least in domestic policy) -- but there are lots of subtleties that are lost. With that said, of course a big question going forward is how to make our system work in a partisan era where the opposition party is empowered by the filibuster.

Part of another email:

..If Republican public relations pins the blame on the Democrats you’ve bought their spin with your criticism, “Democrats seem unable to do the simplest things the GOP does so well…”

    Posted by on Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 06:48 PM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  Comments (11)


    Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.