Category Archives: Political Institutions

The Following is Laced with Bitterness

Not actually, but I am slightly annoyed and confused.

The biggest problem facing my generation is a dysfunctional legislature handicapped by it’s own antiquated rules and procedures that no longer serve any meaningful purpose. It’s a problem that supersedes  the rest; it stifles our ability to tackle any other major issue successfully.

That was the question asked by the editors of The Nation for their annual student writing contest: what is the biggest problem facing your generation. What were selected as the winning essays are nothing more than filler, subjects barely worthy of having 800 words devoted to them—except one regarding climate change, but as has been evident, and like I’ve said, I double-dog dare you to do anything meaningful about climate change in a de facto 60-vote Senate.

I don’t have much to say regarding the first place entry, a beautifully written retrospective on the Virginia Tech shooting. While it would be deserving of publication on it’s own merits, it doesn’t really address the question.

Answers from the other essays include apathy, evidenced by low turnout on election day. That’s definitely a problem, but the biggest? This is universal; every generation, when its members were ages 18-24, was lazy and apathetic toward politics. (Save for the kids that were newly allowed to vote immediately following the passage of the 26th amendment, but that’s totally different). Another essay espoused the evils of mobile telephones, or technology, or rampant ADHD. Hard to tell what the point was, or how on Earth it could possibly be classified as THE biggest problem facing our generation.

There was, for what is probably the 1,000th time in the past couple months, a condemnation of mixed-market capitalism. That there are currently millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans isn’t a refutation of our economic system as much as it is a refutation of our policymakers and the institutions they inhabit. We’re in what essentially is a textbook financial crisis/balance sheet recession. There are policies that could have had us out of it by now, but unfortunately…well, see step one.

There was one other essay, on the terrible state of American journalism, that was poignant. Some may recognize it as “The Cult of Balance”. James Fallows of the Atlantic and Paul Krugman have been hitting at this for a long time. Climate Change, while existentially important, is obvious; it’s nice to see someone hit on a more subtle and nuanced topic.

I’m sticking to my guns, though. The political realities of today are incompatible with the political systems they must operate within. Is it really surprising, though, considering those systems were designed in the 1700s? Hardly.

There is an observable phenomenon here. It’s the inability to get an incredibly important point specifically related to congressional procedure across, regardless of effort; to be rendered mute by the popular discourse. It shall be christened henceforth as EKS, or Ezra Klein Syndrome, after its first victim (at least, the first victim I cared to notice). Read this interview he conducted with Matt Miller, who with many other equally naïve men and women have been crooning for a third-party candidate to run for the presidency. It’s a stunning example of the cognitive dissonance that inundates the airwaves and broadsheets.

People can talk all they want about how the passage of the PPACA was heated and controversial due to President Obama’s inability to sell it to the public, or because it wasn’t “bipartisan”. It’s all trash; Representatives and Senators are big boys and girls, and they hold the ultimate power in passing legislation. The truth is that the Senate has become a dysfunctional, paralyzed body wherein a dedicated and unflinching minority can halt everything and relax in full confidence, knowing that no political harm will be meted out. Better yet, not only has such a minority continued to steamroll every rule and norm that has been established over the entire history of the chamber, they will do so knowing that they’ll actually come out net positive thanks to the opaque and insipid nature of these tactics.

If only parliamentary procedure was sexy! Maybe then there would be some hope of doing something about it. Here’s to hoping that my generation has a moment of clarity and realizes our actual handicap. My losing entry for the contest follows, after the jump.

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More Thoughts on American Governance: Why Do We Have a Two-Party System?

I recently had a discussion with a professor of mine on how and why our political system barely functions, as evidenced by the unprecedented phenomenon of refusing to vote for raising the debt ceiling without massive concessions in return. Naturally, the topic of our political system being confined to its current two-party reality came up. A lot of people, whether they happen to thoroughly follow Washington or not, agree that a political system with a more robust offering of ideological parties would be better than the status quo. Although people’s reasoning for why this would be so isn’t always necessarily anchored in reason, this opinion seems to be popular.

I’m not positive as to whether this has been adequately polled or not but there is at least this from May 9th by Gallup, which is still telling:

Back to the conversation: After listening to my complaints, this solution to the problem was brought forth. As is most commonly the case when it’s brought forth, though, it’s done so in a way that errs on the side of simplicity. If we want to add more political parties to the mix, we need to understand why the system is the way it is and why there are only two parties to begin with. The framers didn’t put into our constitution a clause that mandates a two-party system. In fact, they didn’t say anything whatsoever about political parties.

A common prescription is that voters need to bite the bullet and vote for a third party’s candidate en masse. That suggestion shrouds the nuance of the problem, though. Stripped down to its most basic level, we elect members to the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Presidency through a voting method called first-past-the-post. It’s simple: there’s a pool of candidates; you vote for which one you like; the guy or gal with the most votes wins. This style of voting militates toward our unsavory two-party system. Duverger’s Law, via Wikipedia:

A two-party system often develops from the single-member district plurality voting system (SMDP). In an SMDP system, voters have a single vote which they can cast for a single candidate in their district, in which only one legislative seat is available. The winner of the seat is determined by the candidate with the most votes. This means that the SMDP system has several qualities that can serve to discourage the development of third parties and reward the two major parties.

Duverger suggests two reasons why single-member district plurality voting systems favor a two party system. One is the result of the “fusion” (or an alliance very like fusion) of the weak parties, and the other is the “elimination” of weak parties by the voters, by which he means that the voters gradually desert the weak parties on the grounds that they have no chance of winning.

To put this into real terms, by voting for a Green Party candidate or a Libertarian in the U.S., you are wasting your vote. Furthermore, (using the left side of the spectrum in the U.S. as an example) by voting for a Green Party candidate, you are doing more harm than good than if you voted for the Democrat. That applies even if you don’t totally agree with the platform of the Democratic candidate. Principle be damned, you’re hurting your cause. This is essentially the root of the saying that I’m sure everyone hears a hundred times every couple of years: “voting for the lesser of two evils”.

If we want to get serious about political reform in the United States then we’re going to need to examine how we vote and change it. I suggest something along the lines of IRV.

It also needs mentioned that this steps aside the larger, institutional problem with our legislature, which would prevent the addition of more political parties from effecting any substantial progress. Think filibusters and split government. That is for another time, though.

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A Lot of the Senate’s Time is Spent Doing Nothing

As I’ve written previously, the United States Senate doesn’t work anymore (see the most recent post besides this, or the old blog). This is due in large part to the adoption of the scorched-earth politicking of the minority parties of recent, which includes, but is not limited to, rampant use of the filibuster. As seen in the above graph by Ezra Klein, which shows the number of attempts to invoke cloture, the use of the filibuster has exploded. It bears noting that this doesn’t account for the countless times a filibuster is merely threatened, de facto killing the item; or the times a motion for cloture isn’t even filed because the majority leader knows there aren’t enough votes to break the filibuster. Meaning it’s even worse than what the graph shows, if that’s believable.

The Washington Post’s David A. Fahrenthold reports that the 112th Congress has of course picked right back up where the 111th left off—again it’s specifically the Senate that’s behind this. However, this time, it’s even less than the most meaningless and obstructive of filibustering that’s getting accomplished.

In the U.S. Senate, this is what nothing sounds like.

“Mr. Akaka.”

At 9:36 a.m. on Thursday, a clerk with a practiced monotone read aloud the name of Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii). The chamber was nearly deserted. The senator wasn’t there. Not that she was really looking for him.

Instead, the clerk was beginning one of the Capitol’s most arcane rituals: the slow-motion roll calls that the Senate uses to bide time.

These procedures, called “quorum calls,” usually serve no other purpose than to fill up empty minutes on the Senate floor. They are so boring, so quiet that C-SPAN adds in classical music: otherwise, viewers might think their TV was broken.

This year — even as Washington lurches closer to a debt crisis — the Senate has spent a historic amount of time performing this time-killing ritual. Quorum calls have taken up about a third of its time since January, according to C-SPAN statistics: more than 17 eight-hour days’ worth of dead air.

You can’t really blame these guys, though. OK, yes, you definitely can. But not in that way. There’s no reason to be there or do anything when it’s impossible to get anything accomplished. The Democratic majority has no reason to bring up legislation, or try to confirm Presidential nominees, or do anything that requires more than 53 votes for that matter (that’s effectively everything, by the way!), when whatever action will almost certainly be ground into the dirt. The Senate has evolved from beyond being a place where all things go to die into a place where all things are teleported back in time and never born.

As for C-SPAN, they have a conundrum on their hands:

[…] C-SPAN worries that its library of classical background music has been over-used. It is trying to expand its options, within a set of strict conditions: The music must be “calm and benign.” No cannon-booming “1812 Overture.” No funeral marches.

And it must not imply any comment on the nothingness happening onscreen.

Let’s ignore that last restriction, since the fact that music they’re playing music comments negatively on the nothingness happening onscreen by default. I suggest Strauss’ Metamorphosen; it’s fairly calm and benign, depending on how you approach it. More importantly, though, it mourns the ruin of another neo-classical building of prominence.

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The Causes of Political Polarization Seem Pretty Obvious

Peter Orszag, former OMB Director for President Obama, provides his thoughts and a few hypotheses on our increasingly polarized politics, and why that is, in a Bloomberg op-ed published yesterday. He notes, rightfully so, that polarization in our current political context is troublesome:

Our political system is so plagued by polarization, it’s difficult to move any legislation forward. In the late 1960s, significant overlap existed in votes cast by the most conservative Democrats in Congress and those cast by the most liberal Republicans. (See accompanying chart: Polarization in Congress.) By the late 1980s, the common ground had diminished. Today, it has virtually disappeared.

This overlap was due in part to a more geographical nature to voting blocs. For example, there existed a large contingent of southern Democrats devoted to the preservation of institutionalized white supremacy in the 1960s. Nowadays, our political parties are split along ideological lines. Iit’s safe to say that the most liberal Republican is securely to the right of the most conservative Democrat, like Mr. Orszag says. It may be the case that Scott Brown or either of the Senators from Maine are more liberal than Ben Nelson, but what it ultimately comes down to are their voting records, and their voting records say otherwise.

What we now have are two parties that are much more disciplined than their previous selves and much more devoted to doing whatever it takes to win elections, i.e. filibustering everything under the sun and letting the public assign blame to the only place that makes sense: the people in the majority, who are unable to pass legislation.

Orszag, citing Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing’s The Big Sort, thinks this polarization is due to reasons other than the simple reality that we live in a two-party system in which one half of the spectrum has totally lost their shit and abandoned moderation and sensibility while maintaining electoral competitiveness by playing fatalist politics:

One crucial cause, as documented in “The Big Sort,” a path-breaking book by Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing, is increased residential segregation by political party. We are voluntarily separating ourselves into Republican and Democratic neighborhoods. Today’s media and blogosphere, which increasingly filter news according to their point of view, exacerbate and reinforce the effect.

Two maps (see accompanying maps: 1976 Election and 2008 Election), taken from a recent paper by James Thomson of the RAND Corp., show the U.S. broken down by county (county lines have also not been redistricted). The dark-shaded counties are those that have swung hard one way or another in a presidential election, and so are considered polarized, while the light counties are politically mixed. The difference from 1976 to 2008 is striking: The number of light counties has fallen sharply. Roughly 25 percent more of the U.S. population now lives in a landslide county than did in the 1970s.

I don’t see how this geographical redistribution leads to anything other than some additional safe seats for each party. And I’m especially confused as to how it leads to an uncompromising, semi-dysfunctional legislature. Peter Orszag is an economist, so he should know that people respond to incentives. Just like people are going to move for whatever reason provides them the most utility, politicians are going to behave in a maximizing way, too. The incentives to work together are clearly misaligned when a minority party can effectively act to the detriment of the majority party’s legislative agenda and be electorally successful.

It’s also a mystery as to how polarization amongst parties necessitates a polarized electorate. The average American voter is someone who doesn’t pay too much attention to politics, has moderate views on social issues, and knows nothing about economics. Yet despite these realities, elected Republicans, who won office in a midterm election amidst the greatest economic downturn in 80 years, proceeded to gut collective bargaining, pass anti-abortion legislation, disenfranchise the young, hold the country’s credit hostage, propose privatizing Medicare, defend financial institutions against new regulatory legislation after those financial institutions tanked the world economy on their watch, etc. Poll these things with the public and it’s obvious that none of them are popular. Pinky promise. At least they aren’t amongst non-cranks, and it’s the non-cranks that decide elections, usually basing their vote solely on the direction they feel the economy is moving.

So the obvious solution is for the public to pay more attention and better acquaint themselves with legislative processes and tactics. I’m not very inspired by that.

Mr. Orszag recommends a better route:

The best bet on what will happen in Washington is, therefore, nothing — until and unless it has to. The Big Sort generates gridlock, making it increasingly difficult for lawmakers to tackle anything from climate change to budget balancing.

Clearly, redistricting reform won’t help us much. Instead, we should try to create a new set of rules and institutions that can use legislative inertia to our benefit — just as a growing body of tools in the private sector, such as automatic- enrollment 401(k) plans, are using inertia there to produce better outcomes.

The Independent Payment Advisory Board, created to constrain cost growth and improve quality in Medicare, without new legislation, is one example of trying to leverage legislative inertia. The key is that inaction by Congress allows the IPAB’s recommendations to take effect.

Another example is the backstop fiscal trigger currently being discussed as part of the debt-limit negotiations. With this mechanism in place, congressional inaction would lead to automatic spending cuts and/or revenue increases (and, by the way, the trigger should include both). Here again, legislative inaction wouldn’t mean failure to address a problem.

The era of gridlock government is unlikely to disappear overnight. We might as well figure out how to function with it.

This is fine in the intermediate, I guess, but we’re in trouble outside of that. Concrete things need to happen if you want to correct our democratic inefficiencies. Our campaign-finance law needs serious amending; the filibuster needs to go; there are various other voting methods that are vastly superior to First Past the Post such as Instant Runoff Voting, which has the potential to alleviate us of our two-party problems, and give the political middle more salience.

I could go on, but I’ll conclude by saying that our political system is flawed in ways that incentivize polarization but can’t accommodate it. I just disagree with Mr. Orszag on the factors that create this. American society is no more polarized than those of other western liberal democracies. These just have slightly better systems of governance that circumvent the negatives.

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