Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Least Deliberative Body

It has become cliche to refer to the US Senate as the world's most deliberative body. In policy circles it would seem to serve as a reason for the Senate's inaction on any number of issues, and yet, after reading George Packer's piece in The New Yorker I was left thinking that the cliche is all wrong.

-adjective
1. having the function of deliberating, as a legislative assembly
2. having to do with policy; dealing with the wisdom and expediency of a proposal

What struck me about Packer's article is, as Sen. Merkley mentions in the article, is how there really isn't any deliberation. There isn't debate. There's posturing, procedural maneuvering, and pedantic speeches given to CSPAN cameras, but no deliberation.

The Senate has been reduced from what de Toucheville once described as a place where "they represent only the lofty thoughts [of the nation] and the generous instincts animating it, not the petty passions," to a place where arcane rules are wielded to grind everything to a halt.

I think there are 3 reasons for this:
1) Fund-raising
2) Eternal Elections
3) A perversion of well-intentioned rules

The Constant Cash Scramble
I once read that a Congressperson needs to raise $10,000 per week from the moment they take office in order to be competitive in the next election. The infusion of money into the political system is not new, but the seeming acceleration of that infusion should frighten people. Sure every voter gets a vote, but how is that going to compete against a few million dollars from a specific industry with a targeted agenda? The Senators now serving have to play to these interests because this is where the big dollars are coming from. That means a lot of little favors that snowball into big hurdles for really moving things forward.

The Eternal Election
If you watch cable news, when's the last time you heard "possible presidential candidate, so and so?" Our media has become captured by the horse race and so have our elected officials. For the Senate that means really just three days of legislating every week. It also means the senators aren't talking to each other. They aren't spending time together. This isn't a wish for Harry Reid and Richard Shelby to go skipping down the Capitol steps together, but if you don't know someone how can you hope to negotiate with them? If you don't trust, don't know enough to respect them how do you deliberate anything? What's clear from Packer's article is you don't.

Rules Perversion
Most of us know there's a rule in the Senate that any senator can place an anonymous hold on an appointee and that rule has been used rather frequently (and frivolously) in the recent past. What I did not know until reading Packer's article was that the hold was originally intended to give a Senator that had to travel some distance (on horseback no less) to hold up confirmation until they could ask the appointee questions. It was never intended to be an instrument to hold an administration hostage. This is one example of several that Packer outlines where rules with good intentions have been perverted to satisfy a senator's "petty passions."

So what do we do about it?
If these are the main reasons (I'm quite certain there are others) then what is to be done to change things? First, we have to start taking the money out of politics. The Supreme Court set us back with that with the Citizens United decision. I, like many liberals, disagreed with that decision for one main reason. The decision, in essence, equated money with free speech. I think this is a dangerous precedent and a threat to a democracy. If we are truly a country of "one person, one vote" then we need to ensure that the rules of campaigns and fundraising follows along similar lines. This would allow senators to think grander and not feel so beholden to special interests.

Second, we need the media to stop reporting the horserace and start reporting the issues. There's a disincentive to do this. The horserace is cheap to report, flashy, and constantly evolving to satisfy the appetite of a news cycle that people feel the urge to constantly feed. But if the consumer demanded more, if it was as much about policy as it is about personality we would be taking a step in the right direction.

Third, the Senate needs to take steps to fix itself. This is probably the hardest and most perplexing aspect. The only people that can make the Senate more efficient are the same people that made it inefficient. There are some freshmen senators with an eye towards a rules change, but the old-timers are hesitant and as the freshmen become the old-timers they will likely be co-opted by the system they currently loathe. The Senate has the power to change, perhaps it lies in the people to give them the will.

What's next?
The cynic in me figures there will be a rash of blog posts (not unlike this one) decrying the Senate and urging change. That drum beat will quickly fade and nothing will happen. The optimist in me thinks that maybe these young guns in the Senate will force some change. The revolutionary in me thinks we're reaching a tipping point in our government, a dangerous tipping point where the people see the ineffectiveness of government and lash out against it. This could be a time of renewal and positive realignment where Congress can get back to the people's business. But there is so much anger, so much rage focused on an enemy, but not an alternative that this realignment could be a major step backward.

We did this to ourselves. We are all of us complicit in the degradation of a once deliberative body. We have the power to make the changes needed. Do we too have the will? The humility? The attention span?

UPDATED:
David Broder steals my line. Irrelevant that his was published before mine.

17 comments:

Colin said...

First, we have to start taking the money out of politics.

There's an easy way to do this: restrict the power of government. As long as government continues to wield increasing amounts of power over its citizens people will attempt to influence it. I realize that is an uncomfortable truth for our friends on the left who want more and more government power, but there it is.

Just as Willie Sutton robbed banks because that's where the money is, lobbyists head to Congress because that's where the power is. The more power they have, the more lobbyists there are.

The Supreme Court set us back with that with the Citizens United decision. I, like many liberals, disagreed with that decision for one main reason. The decision, in essence, equated money with free speech. I think this is a dangerous precedent and a threat to a democracy. If we are truly a country of "one person, one vote" then we need to ensure that the rules of campaigns and fundraising follows along similar lines. This would allow senators to think grander and not feel so beholden to special interests.

I think the real threat to democracy is from people who want to restrict free speech and campaign finance donations. Morally, it is repugnant. Why shouldn't I be allowed to donate money to causes I support? Why do you want to restrict my ability to get out my message? And how the hell is having less speech about politics contributing to democracy?

Your last sentence, meanwhile, is astonishing. The absolute last thing I want is my elected officials engaging in "grander" thinking. Their grandiose plans have already landed us in enough trouble as it is. I want them more accountable and more beholden to special interests -- aka the people they represent. After all, we are all special interests. I have a special interest in things like expanded economic freedom, school choice and gun rights. I'm sure you have any number of pet causes as well.

Besides the philosophical angle, your argument suffers from some very practical problems as well. Did McCain-Feingold do anything to clean up politics? Jack Abramoff and Rep. William J. Jefferson would certainly beg to differ.

Six states -- Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Virginia -- have no restrictions on contributions from individuals. Are their politics more dirty than the other 44 states? Roughly half of states have no restrictions on corporate and union donations -- are there pronounced contrasts between the politics of those states and those with such restrictions? Where is the evidence to support this campaign against money in politics?

Lastly, I'll note that restrictions on individual donations has led to the rise of self-funded millionaires as candidates. I fail to see how giving a pronounced advantage to guys like Jim Corzine serves to clean up our politics (although I'm sure liberals have plenty of laws meant to address this as well).

It's also ironic that you complain about all of the time senators spend fundraising, but then decry money in politics. If there weren't so many restrictions on donations senators could fill their war chest from a handful of well-funded individuals rather than attend an endless parade of fund-raisers to collect a couple thousand here and there.

Ben said...

There's an easier way to do this, restrict the spending in campaigns.

Colin said...

There's an easier way to do this, restrict the spending in campaigns.

We can call it the Incumbent Protection Act. Given the name recognition advantage of incumbents their and easy access to media this might boost their re-election rate in Congress rom 95% to 100%.

Colin said...

Oh, I should also point out another practical problem with this approach is the role of third parties. Would the spending of unions and organizations such as the Club for Growth in campaigns also be restricted? And if so, isn't that a restriction on their free speech?

Ben said...

Well, that's entirely nonsensical. The incumbency advantage is not disaggregated from funding--that is, money is not flowing to incumbents in spite of their incumbency but because of it. Moreover, capping spending does not mean making it impossible for challengers to purchase air time or media buys, the apparent assumption your comment makes.

The real problem with unrestrained funding lies in the speech dilution effect--a problem that the Supreme Court has strangely (or not so, depending on the view you take of First Amendment jurisprudence) refused to recognize.

Ben said...

Obviously third parties are caught up in (or should be) limitations on campaign spending. Under current money = speech jurisprudence, yes spending caps would be a limitation on speech. Two things though, before we get hyperbolic about restricting speech: 1. speech is frequently restricted--see, e.g., limitations on the right of unions to picket--as are all rights; 2. speech is an individual right, associations derive their First Amendment rights from their members and those rights are necessarily subordinate to the rights of an individual. Finally, while it is oft repeated there is no right to effective speech, one's speech ought to be protected from unnecessary assault or dilution.

Think, if you will, about Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms. Recall the image of the worker and the banker in the New England town hall meeting. Consider this the paragon of individual political speech--the most protected speech. Now, consider that instead of the banker and the worker show up after work to the town hall and the town hall is filled to capacity, not by other citizens of the town, but by persons paid by a corporation to occupy the town hall around the clock, pushing out all other speakers. This is the problem with dilution.

Ben said...

And, just because it's fun: Four Freedoms

Colin said...

Well, that's entirely nonsensical. The incumbency advantage is not disaggregated from funding--that is, money is not flowing to incumbents in spite of their incumbency but because of it. Moreover, capping spending does not mean making it impossible for challengers to purchase air time or media buys, the apparent assumption your comment makes.

Wait, it's entirely nonsensical to think that incumbents enjoy a distinct advantage over their challengers? That they enjoy a higher name recognition than their opponents?

If you limit campaign spending then you are tilting the advantage to the incumbent as the challenger probably needs to spend even more money than the incumbent just to compensate for the inherent advantages in being an incumbent, which range from higher name recognition to easy access to the media to district offices to sending pork to the district.

This isn't nonsense, in fact it is common sense. I don't even think it is controversial.

Colin said...

Maybe wikipedia is peddling nonsense too:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incumbency_advantage#Reasons

Colin said...

Sorry for the multiple posts, but I can't stop thinking about this. Let's say that you are running against a House incumbent. 70% of the people in the district have heard of him. He has district offices. He got a new bridge built. And he can call press conferences whenever with the knowledge they will be well-attended.

You have name recognition of 20% and none of the other advantages. Both of you are limited in the amount of money you can spend. Is that really a level playing field? Is that an arrangement any challenger should desire? Is that really nonsensical?

Ben said...

No, Colin, I'm not arguing that incumbents don't enjoy a name recognition advantage. I just quibble with your assessment that unrestrained campaign spending benefits challengers--I find that wholly unpersuasive and I would be very surprised if you could produce any data to back-up that notion that doesn't fold-in self-financed candidates.

You would do well, I think, to investigate some of the fine campaign finance literature. I would begin with Nate Persily and Pam Karlan.

Again, you take issue with something not even relevant to my point about dilution.

Ben said...

The list in wikipedia is (1) obvious and (2) not something I in anyway dispute. Nor did I dispute it in my first comment.

Colin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colin said...

I just quibble with your assessment that unrestrained campaign spending benefits challengers--I find that wholly unpersuasive and I would be very surprised if you could produce any data to back-up that notion that doesn't fold-in self-financed candidates.

In 1996, every House incumbent who spent less than $500,000 won compared with only 3% of challengers who spent that little. However challengers who spent between $500,000 and $1 million won 40% of the time while challengers who spent more than $1 million won five of six races. In both 1994 and 1996, every challenger who spent less than the limits set by the original language of McCain-Feingold for Senate races lost, but every incumbent who did so won.

Besides the data, just ask yourself why if limiting spending or other measures designed to get money out of politics helped level the playing field why McCain-Feingold passed Congress so easily (by 20 votes in the Senate 51 in the House)? Are Congressmen so goshdarn committed to improving the electoral process they are selflessly willing to throw a life preserver to possible challengers?

Both theory and the data support my contention that limiting campaign spending works to the benefit of incumbents.

Ben said...

I'm sorry, Colin, I was imprecise--I meant contributions and independent expenditures not spending by campaigns themselves. I apologize for the confusion and I realize that it's entirely inobvious as I switched back and forth between talking about contributions and expenditures by campaigns--it's only clear that I meant contributions/IEs based on the context, my commentary on dilution.

I would note, however, that it is not necessarily the case that because a campaign spending cap benefits incumbents--assuming it does--that unrestrained spending would benefit challengers. The dichotomy is false.

Colin said...

I would note, however, that it is not necessarily the case that because a campaign spending cap benefits incumbents--assuming it does--that unrestrained spending would benefit challengers.

Well, the data suggests that it would. The more money that is spent, the greater the success rate of challengers.

This is perfectly logical. As I have explained before, the advantages of incuments are significant and pronounced. One of the only ways for challengers to overcome this and level the playing field is through spending. If you limit both candidates to the same amount then it is a win for the incumbent given the other advantages he/she already enjoys. I imagine the preferred level of campaign spending by incumbents is zero.

Ben said...

You gloss over a necessary fact in your causal linkage--who out spent whom. If in those five out of six races where the challenger spent more than a $1 million he significantly out spent the incumbent it is not at all surprising that he beat the incumbent. This is not an effect, strictly speaking, of unrestrained spending so much as it is a truism that campaign spending yields results. You can imagine a system of capped spending where the incumbent does spend the maximum and is beaten by a challenger who does--it's the same scenario, you've just taken off the upper limit.

At any rate, the broader point I was making is the problem with campaign financing is the unrestrained spending by organizations drowning out the speech of individuals.