Institutional Power and Congressional Sheep

>> Wednesday, November 25, 2009

As a general rule members of Congress wish to be reelected. That is not too shocking of a proposition because being a member of Congress is a prestigious job with good benefits. As a result of this interest congress people, senators especially, like to do things that will keep them in office. One of the things that helps keep someone in Congress is taking credit while avoiding responsibility. By taking this approach Congress has managed to alter the balance of power vis-a-vis the Presidency. A case in point is the filibuster.

Reading Ezra Klein's post on Congress' voice should make it clear that the system of government in our country could use some reform.

More to the point, it's important for Congress to begin thinking that way again. For the filibuster to end, Congress is going to have to rediscover its institutional voice. Democrats hate the filibuster when they're in power, and Republicans loathe it when they're in power, but it won't end until Congress decides it an enemy of Congress, rather than of whichever party happens to be in the majority at that moment.

People occasionally let slip that the filibuster is one of the checks and balances written into the Constitution. It isn't, of course. And its centrality to the process is a symptom of the failure of the checks and balances envisioned in our founding document. Congress was supposed to be stronger than the executive branch, and in competition with it. As such, it was considered very important, and very obvious, that Congress would work diligently to maximize its own power and authority. Congress would never permit some loophole to render it an ineffective branch, dependent entirely on rare supermajorities and presidential momentum to pass legislation.

But in recent years, American politics has become entirely about the president. Congressional elections are referendums on the president. Republicans lost in 2006 because Bush was unpopular, not because Harry Reid was beloved. Democrats understand that their fortunes are lashed to Obama's success, and Republicans have been clear that their return to power runs through his failure. Congress defines itself in relation to the president. That makes the filibuster very important to whichever party isn't in charge of the White House. It means the minority party has a continual stake in Congress not really working, because that means the president can't really succeed.

Klein has a good point and is mostly correct. Where i think he misses the mark is that the President has been the center of American politics for much more than the recent past. FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, Lincoln were all strong executives who acted in the center of American Political life.

What is clear is that President's demand power. Both Democratic and Republican presidents seek to expand the power of the executive office. They cede power only after bloody political struggle. The reason for this is that Presidents can hardly avoid responsibility in the way that Congress manages to do. It is easy to identify who holds the presidency. Blame is easy to apportion to him when voters feel he deserves it. Under these circumstances what person would not want to gather the most control over his destiny as possible? Not to mention that the type of person who seeks the Presidency is one interested in power. There are no Cincinnatuses in modern American politics.

In contrast Congress appears to be more than happy to cede power to those willing to take the responsibility. Avoid making decisions, avoid pissing people off too much, get reelected. Nate Silver makes exactly this point in his post advising Blanche Lincoln. Silver's message is that the best advice is to stay out of the spotlight. Avoid being the one responsible and improve your chances of reelection. Massive gridlock helps individual legislators avoid taking the blame. The approve/disapprove numbers of your representative are better than congress as a whole. It is not there fault its everybody else. The filibuster provides an excuse for Democrats to blame Republican's and continue the policy of not rocking the boat.

As Klein points out the modern Congress is not in opposition to the President. The party system in our country means that there are incentives for the Congress to make the President look good. Those in the same party as the President are rewarded for going with the President. As an institution, Congress has decided that it is generally better to be the sheep than the shepherd. If enough members of Congress wanted it bad enough they could break any filibuster. The problem is that that would be...hard. Also, time consuming.

There's two pieces. One is the time of the chamber. They have other things to do. The modern Senate has more staff, deals with more interest groups. There's more legislation. More appropriations. The modern senator spends 1 percent of his or her time on the Senate floor. They have to take pictures with constituents. They have to fundraise and meet with constituency groups and lobbyists and deal with staff. To actually have a live filibuster would mean they have to give up all the other business.

And as individuals, they have other things to do. Air travel has opened up. In 2009, if you are the senator from Montana, it's perfectly reasonable for you to go home on the weekend and campaign for reelection. That wasn't possible in 1940. You came to Washington to do your work and you stayed until it was done. Now air travel has made it possible for you to fly away for the weekend. That makes your time more valuable.

They have better things to do. If they wanted it bad enough 50 democrats could break any filibuster. It would be an epic war of attrition and a media feeding frenzy for the ages.

The best example of this is the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It was the longest debate in the Senate's history. But the majority wasn't trying to wait out the Southerners. Instead, they just let them talk, and would send their guys down, and argue against them when they would, for instance, deny that lynchings happen in the South. This helped public opinion turn.

The benefit to the majority can be that public attention focuses. They know the bill is there and they know the Republicans are blocking it. That becomes the basis for news coverage. When will the bill be done? What's going on today? In that sense, you can win. The point is not that you exhaust the Republicans, but that you embarrass them. X number of people died today. I hope that whatever you had to say was more important.

And time can work on your side. In 1913, the second item on Woodrow Wilson's agenda was what we now know of as the Federal Reserve Act. The bill came up December 1st., and the Democrats said we'll stay here till the bill passes. If that means we don't get a Christmas break, we don't get a Christmas break. That focused people's attention.

Imagine the responsibility and blame that could be fed out here. Senators would have to really step up. They do not want to do that. They have excuses built into the system and no interest in expanding their power against the presidency and the judiciary.

The power of the presidency is going to continue to grow as will the power of the judiciary, the fed and other independent groups who are able to absolve Congress from responsibility for hard or unpopular decisions.


O-le,O-le, O-le, O-le! O-le, O-le!

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