Friday, January 9, 2009

Something is Broken

By Zach Myers

In 1977 Morris P. Fiorina exhumed a mystery. In plain language he laid out the truth behind the vanishing marginal. According to Fiorina, David Mayhew first released the disappearance of marginal districts in 1974, and since then the trend has held – fewer and fewer districts have close elections. If a competitive election is defined as one in which the winner gets somewhere between 50 and 55 than in 1972 only 10% of congressional districts could be considered marginal. Compare this to the 25% of districts which were completive in 1948 (Fiorina, p. 8).

Fiorina fears that the disappearance of marginal districts does not bode well for democracy, because marginal districts are an essential meter for reading and enacting the popular will. In safe districts Congress-people have no electoral incentive to revise their policy positions. This is reflected in their voting records which typically stay consistent over time (Fiorina, p. 12). However, in marginal districts votes do change as congressman are swept aside and replaced. According to Fiorina, “Whether coming to Washington on the coattails of a popular president or over the bodies of the congressional victims of an unpopular one, the marginal congressman constitute the electoral mandate.” Marginal districts are the effective agent of change in our system of Federal Democracy. Without them Congress becomes unresponsive to the “popular sentiments” of the people of the USA (Fiorina, p. 14).

Fiorina shows us the evidence he has collected, and leads us to the conclusion that in fact it is Congressman themselves who are responsible for killing the marginals. Expansion of Federal Power, weakening party allegiance, and advancement in information technology, combined in a way which has increased the desirability and ability of Congress-people to get and keep offices for long periods of time. At the point of Fiorina writing his book these forces had culminated into a fundamental paradigm shift in Congress towards a mentality of electioneering. Career politicians with the means and the wherewithal to essentially guarantee re-election had begun to dominate Congress. The reason for Fiorina is obvious – natural selection. “We, the people, help to weed out congressman whose primary goal isn’t reelection (Fiorina, p.40).”

While this “Tuesday to Thursday Club” – as Anthony King describes them – are particularly adept at getting reelected, Fiorina feels that they’re primary responsibility – i.e. passing effective legislation – has fallen to the wayside. By spending less time legislating and more time on constituent service, Fiorina believes Congress has contributed to the explosion of a mismanaged and complicated Federal government. This is the bureaucracy monster. The argument that institutional advantages to individual Congress-people encourage big, obstinate bureaucracies is compelling: First, Congress-people benefit from expanding bureaucracies by sending money to their home-districts in the form of Federal programs. These programs make them look good in the eyes of their constituents. Even inane and ineffective programs profit Congress-people when they bring money and jobs (p.41). Second, once bureaucracies are in place, if they’re ineffective and/or inflexible, Congress-people benefit again. Now they have the opportunity to do Congressional favors for constituents by fast-tracking things through otherwise bloated Federal agencies. Finally, bureaucracies provide a scapegoat for Congress-people to bash when their policies fail. Congress has no incentive to fix governmental problem because true policy innovation is risky. Simply creating a new agency and calling the problem fixed is the easiest most electorally advantageous avenue for Senators in the current system.

In Running Scared Anthony King relays another potential problem with US of A democracy. According to King, the US system is plagued with elections. US representatives are agents of the people and are terrified of taking any initiative in legislating – even when it may be for the greater good. Because of short terms and primaries (a uniquely US American institution) the frequency of elections in the US is tremendous. Congressman must constantly design their actions to be in-line with reelection goals because they are in a near constant state of campaigning. Furthermore, US representatives are particularly susceptible to special interest lobbies which can consolidate votes and, therefore, amount to serious electoral threats to Congress-peoples jobs if they are not careful.

Like Fiorina, King fears that US representatives have become reduced to mere electioneers with neither the time nor the incentive to be effective legislators. Also, like, Fiorina King believes that the weakening of partisan power has resulted in less effective legislators. Perhaps, King is right in thinking that by increasing terms and eliminating primary elections (I only assume King would approve of getting rid or primaries) the US may restore dignity to the Legislative Branch. However I think this is unlikely, for the very same reason that King gives for why the problem developed in the first place Americans “are, and have been for a very long time, the Western world’s hyperdemocrats.”

Harwood and Seib’s article Pennsylvania Avenue presents us with the story behind the Dubai Port Deal. I view this article is largely as a case study in how the US government can get bent-over by special interests and demagoguery. Essentially in this case a rather routine decision by the NSC was seized upon by conservative talk show hosts as a quasi-conspiratorial threat to US sovereignty. The emphasis placed on this decision created major gridlock and eventually killed a sixty billion dollar deal from going through. Harwood and Seib conclude that Congress has lost interest in creating bi-partisan legislation, choosing to instead be dominated by special interests and gridlock. The Congress has its finger on the pulse of public opinion. So much so that a rather innocuous decision made by the Federal bureaucracy was derailed, despite the fact that the individuals grid-locking the deal were Republicans going against a Republican president, in favor of relatively inconsequential talk-show hosts. The care taken by representatives to ensure reelection, has created a witch-hunt mentality in which Congress-people are so afraid of reprisal that they will crucify their party or the Federal bureaucracy in order to save themselves.

Harwood and Seib’s story comports well with the institutional problems foreseen by Fiorina and King. Congressman are no longer interested in legislating, are overly-obsessed with popular whims and are no longer subject to, nor shielded by, by powerful parties. They are on their own. As such Congress-people are abandoning their principles. In the previous case Republican values of free market capitalism were cast aside as Republican representatives were busy running to the lowest common denominator in demagoguery in order to ensure reelection.

Mann and Ornstien’s Broken Branch creates an even fuller picture of the evolving problems which Fiorina and King predicted would occur due to the institutional structure of the Congress. Mann and Ornstien expose the fact that Congress is not interested in oversight, legislative streamlining and/or meaningful reform of important Federal agencies. Instead as Fiorina predicted Congress focuses their time and energy finding funding for supercilious programs which will bring them attention in their home state. Earmarks have expanded by leaps and bounds in recent years, yet our disaster preparedness has been found lacking. This proved particularly bad for our nation when disaster did strike. FEMA had been newly assimilated under the Department of Homeland Security and was having trouble understanding its responsibilities after the executive restructuring. Without a clear mandate from Congress and very little oversight FEMA did not adequately prepare, and as a result they were completely unready to deal with the thousands of people in need of assistance during Hurricane Katrina.

Mann and Ornstein expose a particularly vexing problem in Congress, which is the lack of deliberation on issues of central importance to US Governing. This according to Mann and Ornstien is caused by exactly the thing Fiorina discusses, which is the focus on reelection and constituent service. There is no longer the possibility for Congress-people to use discussion and persuasion to create legislation. First of all, because representatives spend all their time in their home states trying to ensure reelection, no one is around to listen and there is no time for deliberation; Second, even if there were time no one would be willing to sacrifice their chances at reelection by reaching across party lines and attempting to compromise – such an effort might blow-up and certainly won’t be as valuable to incumbents as constituent service. Another problem Mann and Ornstein found was a consequence of the large the Congressional staffs. Fiorina identified that Congressional staffs got bigger over time as a result of Congress-people’s strategy to shore-up reelections. One effect of having large congressional staffs, however, is that Congress-people no longer talk to one-another directly. They communicate through their staffers and have little time to really discuss policy with “face-to-face”. Fiorina witnessed the growth of staffs for reelection purposes, but failed to anticipate this particular effect on the institutional strength of Congress.

Instead of deliberation and compromise, the way of getting things done around Washington has become to simply go around the rules and steamroll over the minority party. For instance, during the 108th Congress 60 percent of rules were reported during emergency sessions of Committees – a lot of emergencies M & O sarcastically remark. Without effective opposition or oversight the Federal government suffers. Partisanship and lack of institutional respect are eroding the power and effectiveness of Congress.

One way that Mann and Ornstein appear to disagree with Fiorina, King and Harwood/Seib is in their belief that Party Leadership is in fact very strong in Congress. According to M & O, Congress-people have become dependent on party finance which have been able to circumvent many of the campaign finance laws. Furthermore, while Fiorina had not yet seen sufficient evidence of the effect of redistricting on the structure of Congress, Mann and Ornstein have since come to the conclusion that redistricting has significantly hurt Congress by creating “safe seats” for Congress-people who are then obliged to vote with the party and feel no need to compromise, regardless of national interests. Thus party unity is high, while institutional disunity pervades.

Because majoritarian politics have become so effective in the House of Representatives the Senate now feels pressured to acquiesce to the demands of the majority in the house, in order to at least ensure that some legislation can squeeze through without being blocked. The Senate, as per Federalist papers, is meant to be a counter-majoritarian check on the more susceptible House. If this check has been removed, then the Congress is broken.

The structural intention of the constitution, as explained in the Federalist papers was to create deliberative bodies which can protect minorities from being rolled over by tyrannical majorities. If Mann and Ornstein are correct, than the weakening of Congress’s institutional integrity by our media and money driven “hyperdemocratic” republican system, has reduced the essential intention of the Congress to mere rhetoric.

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