Thursday, February 13, 2014

Democracy in action, kinda

On one level, it's hard to imagine anyone taking issue with Carl Hulse's take on the passage this week of the "clean" debt ceiling hike:
After the shutdown, the filibusters and years of stalled bills, it was the actual passage of legislation this week that revealed the true depth of congressional dysfunction.
Hulse suggests that if only 28 House Republicans vote for a bill that a majority of them probably want to pass, something is deeply amiss:

For a bill to pass the House with such scant support from the party in control, most members of the Republican majority had to quietly want it to pass to avoid the real-world consequences — an economy-rattling default — while being able to vote against it to dodge a backlash from conservative activists threatening repercussions. It was the purest incarnation yet of what has become known as the Vote No, Hope Yes Caucus...

The implications for governing are obvious. If many lawmakers are unwilling or refuse to vote for legislation that they understand to be necessary, and even beneficial, out of fear of retribution from an empowered and outspoken wing of their party, reaching agreement on major policy like immigration becomes difficult if not impossible.

Reinforcing the point about perverse incentives, House Republicans who managed to vote against a debt limit increase that they sincerely wanted to pass could be rewarded by avoiding a primary challenger fueled by the debt issue. They are also likely to earn higher ratings on conservative scorecards that severely penalize lawmakers who back a debt increase.
 All this is true.  And yet, with regard to "dysfunction," I would point out the following:

1) The Vote No, Hope Yes dynamic is as old as American politics, probably as old as parliamentary politics. To take a vote against your leadership that's in sync with your constituents (or the most active of them) when the whip count allows is a matter of survival for many representatives.

2) While a lot of money is fueling the Tea Party, its demands are often at odds with larger moneyed interests that have often been dominant in the Republican Party.

3) For a coterie of fiercely committed voters to hijack a state or district nominating process and corral enough votes to either unseat an incumbent or change his or her voting patterns is in one sense a rather pure form of democracy.

4) Tea Party positions reflect a powerful and persistent strain of American political preferences and attitudes.

 I was first going to write that for Hulse to call the Tea Party's grip on House GOP votes "dysfunctional" is to disapprove in a normative sense -- to disapprove of the legislative results. But that's not right. Hulse's point is not that he does not like Tea Party positions, but that a majority of House Republicans (and I would add, a majority of Americans) don't like many of them, but enable them to carry the day. The dysfunction is not that members of Congress sometimes vote against their personal preferences, or that Tea Party positions are judged destructive (though I would judge them so), but that a large bloc of Republicans if not a majority, frequently vote against their preferences on fundamental issues -- and thus the majority thwarts itself, or allow itself to be controlled by a small uncompromising faction.  That control is enabled by the Hastert Rule -- Boehner's self-imposed ban on bringing a bill to the floor in most cases unless a majority of his caucus supports it. As Hulse points out, Boehner only violates it when faced with a deadline or looming crisis.

So yes, our political system is dysfunctional, in that it can't pass legislation that in some cases a clear majority of reps in both houses of Congress would like to pass. The dysfunction is  a product of divided government, polarized districts, our constitutional "triple veto" on legislation, self-imposed House and Senate rules, a yellow media that inflames the right, a corrupt campaign finance system, residual racism, and inherited distrust of government.  But it ain't exactly undemocratic.

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