Institutions 101 and the Sequester
Institutional dynamics in the US constitutional system are the key to undertstanding our current predicament.
We are, of course, in the midst of the High Blame Game at the moment, as different parties, factions, and individual politicians attempt to position themselves for blame and/or credit for the results of the sequester (one need only turn on the television surf on over to Memeorandum to see what I am talking about).
Let’s cut to the chase, however, and focus on a simple fact regardless of its whatever partisan significance one thinks it has: in our system, one of symmetrical bicameralism with separation of powers, any legislative solution to any problem (which, in domestic politics especially means pretty much all of them) requires the acquiescence of multiple actors and can be derailed at multiple points. Further, the main levers of legislative power reside, as the name would suggest, in the legislature.
During the last week I heard any number of calls for presidential “leadership” as if the solution to our policy impasse is just some magical words.* As Richard Neustadt noted many years ago, “presidential power is the power to persuade,” and in that sense there is a focus on the leadership variable. However, while Neustadt was right about the fact that the president cannot command, and therefore has to bargain, being the institutionalist that I am, I would argue against the word “power” in this context. The veto is a “power” (and an important one) that that president can use when transacting with Congress. Persuasion, however, is just a tool, and one of which too much can be made. It matters not how persuasive a given president is (or how much “leadership” said president displays), if the political opponent is unpersuadable, then impasse continues.
Indeed, if we look at the institutional parameters under which the US federal government operates, we find, quite clearly, that the power to change the direction of the sequester lies firmly in the hands of the legislature. That power is divided into two chambers that have to agree on identical solutions (i.e., we have symmetrical bicameralism). Each of those chambers are further divided. First they are divided by party. In the House of Representatives this typically means a majority fully in control of the chamber’s agenda. However, in recent years that majority has been factionalized and Speaker Boehner has not been fully in control. The need to placate the Tea Party faction has meant that it is very difficult to gain a working consensus within the House (since the majority has to negotiate with itself).** In the Senate the cloture rule means that almost any decision made by the Senate requires a supermajority of 60 votes. Since it is an incredibly rare thing for the majority party in the Senate to have 60 votes, this means that the minority has a great deal of power over the legislative process.
So, let’s recap.
First, the basic configuration of the constitutional order makes legislating difficult, and it puts the primary onus on the legislature, since the legislature and only legislature can formally initiate legislation. The president can suggest, the president can ask, the president can hold press conferences, etc. However, despite the way of lot folks want to make it sound: we decidedly do not have a parliamentary system in which the executive is the main initiator of the legislative agenda. Indeed, quite the opposite—instead of initiating the only actual constitutional power that the president has is the veto (which can only be deployed at the end of the process and the threat of which is only useful as a negotiating tool once an actual legislative proposal is being considered).
Second, that complex system has been made even more difficult to navigate of late. The lack of unity in the House majority is one such variable, and a relatively new one. The empowerment of the minority in the Senate, while not new, has become increasingly more significant in the last decade or so.
All of this has to be taken into account to assess outcomes.
Ultimately, there is a case to be made, at varying levels of significance, about all the actors involved, as they all share responsibility for the current predicament. However, the fact that there are varying levels is important. This is not a case in which all measures of blame are equal, because not all power over the process is equal. Further, I think it is important that we truly understand how this game is played, rather than simply assuming that a) our team is not the problem, or b) that it all lays at the feet of the most prominent player. I say this not as as a defense of the President, but rather as someone who profoundly thinks that solutions to problems cannot not be created until an accurate diagnosis is made. Our system makes coming to decisions very, very difficult and we need to face up to that fact. It is also a system in which directly assigning responsibility is difficult (and hence the current political dance I noted at the start of this post. It makes democratic accountability maddeningly difficult).
*Indeed, I have thought on numerous occasions of late about Matthew Yglesias’ “Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics” which was a reference to the fact that Green Lantern’s power ring was only limited by his power of will. More will power, more effective use of the ring. As such, I keep hearing a lot of commentator’s seemingly assert that if only the president asserted more will over the process that he would get results. Of course, that’s not how it works. For more on Green Lanternism (and it application to the presidency, see Brendan Nyhan’s 2009 post: The Green Lantern theory of the presidency.
**Recall: the main reason we ended up with the Fiscal Cliff and then the Sequester of Doom was because it was impossible for any other solution, save for no raising the debt ceiling and living with those consequences, to pass the House. The entire process was driven, ultimately, by the factional fights in the House.