Thursday, June 7, 2012

It's Worse Than It Looks

Yesterday, I attended a session on Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein's new book, It's Worse Than it Looks, hosted by the National Capital Area Political Science Association. Participants included Mann, Matthew Green of Catholic University, and David Karol of the University of Maryland.

Mann and Ornstein's argument, in brief, is that there is a mismatch between our constitutional institutions and our "extreme" political parties. Our institutions are designed to make it hard to change policy, and to require broad support to do so. They are designed to defend against factions. But our political parties today are like parliamentary parties, and so they want to govern as a majority. Since the institutions make that difficult, they obstruct and battle, to little end.

This amounts to laying the blame for the problem at the feet of the parties. They are behaving badly. That sort of characterization bothers me, but more on that below. Mann and Ornstein go on to suggest that the Republican Party is especially to blame, because they, in particular, have become particularly ideologically "extreme"

In response, Matt Green argued that the institutions of the House of Representatives are actually quite well suited to parties such as these. It's the Senate that's the problem. If the Senate requires 60 votes to pass any legislation (because of the threat of a filibuster), and if holds mean that even one senator can block legislation, then a majority party cannot pass its program. In the House, when the majority fails to pass legislation (as has happened, Green points out, both for Democrats and Republicans in recent Congresses), then what we need are stronger, more parliamentary parties.

David Karol expanded on this point on Green's. It's time to concede, he argued, that ideologically distinct parties are "the new normal," which is really the old normal. The period when parties were undisciplined collections of disagreeable members was brief, in the middle part of the 20th century. Otherwise, here and everywhere in the world, we have programmatic parties. So we should design institutions to fit them, not the other way around. Karol praised suggestions to reform or even end the filibuster, but reforms that were designed to blunt the parties rather than fit them are not such a great idea.

I couldn't agree more with Karol on this point. Political parties are endogenous institutions. They respond to the institutions they face, and they will respond. What we should be doing is not complaining that the parties are behaving badly. That's never a solution. We should find ways to change the their incentives, so they do not behave badly, or so that their behavior has better consequences. Since it is impossible to entice policy-motivated people not to fight for policies that they want, we should instead try to design institutions that, judo-like, direct those passions in positive ways.

To make a bold if impractical suggestion, if Mann and Ornstein are correct that we have "parliamentary parties," then perhaps what we need is a parliamentary political system.


  1. Scrapping our Constitution and moving to a parliamentary system does seem a bit... impractical.

    On the 60 vote Senate: It is clear that the current institution is broken. The majority can't introduce or pass legislation. The remedies offered by defenders of the status quo are bogus ("They should just compromise!" or "A better president would just deliver a really good speech and that would end the gridlock!"). Current incentives insure opposition.

    As a result, having a (non-super) majority in the Senate is pretty worthless. And thus our elections are rendered depressingly meaningless.

    The upside is that there seems to be a growing consensus that, when a majority US Senators decides they would prefer to serve in functional institution, they have the power to change it.

    The supermajority-Senate still exists because the majority lacks sufficient incentive to change it.

    1. And the reason the majority lacks sufficient incentive to change it is because the majority fears the possibility that they may become in a minority and that a functional institution may end up being used against them.

    2. A few wandering thoughts: To a degree, fear of being the future minority party may keep the present-day majority from reforming the filibuster. But maybe it's more nuanced than that -- for instance, maybe extremists in each party would rather get rid of the filibuster now, but the moderates in each party defend it because they garner extra leverage in the legislative process.

      Also, if the filibuster were to be reformed, fear of reciprocation could incentivize the majority to make better legislation in the first place! If they're worried that their legislation will overturned in the future, then they better make sure that it's popular and effective.

    3. When the legislation in question strikes against what another party ideologically supports (such as the Civil Rights Act) or when politicians gain votes and financial support by deliberately being as obstructive as possible it doesn't matter how well you write something.

    4. Before the 111th Congress the Senate wasn't really broken yet.

      During the 111th the majority could (sometimes) get to 60 votes. So, things got done and killing the filibuster would have seemed like a power grab.

      Now, under divided government, there's less incentive. Nothing will get passed without both parties agreeing anyhow.

      Still, Reid is clearly frustrated by how worthless his majority is. He may be willing to actually change things and may accept that the majority has to power to do so.

  2. If we scrap the Senate we'll have the same complaints of ignoring the smaller states. Admittedly this is hardly as politically uncertain as the 1780s but the issue still stands.