Veto Players and Governance

A political science-y response to the question of whether the system is broken.

Let’s return to the question of whether our system of government is broken or not.  In a previous post on the subject, I argued that despite the suboptimal nature of the federal government of the United States regarding the debt ceiling debate that the institutions of that government continue to function properly.*  Here’s the deal:  in a system with a symmetrical bicameralism and separation of powers you get a lot of veto points which creates the potential for the type of process we just witnessed.

Let me unpack that sentence, even if the basic terminology is likely familiar to the reader.  First:  symmetrical bicameralism means a legislative body with two chambers and where those chamber share basically identical (that is, symmetrical) legislative powers, i.e., where all legislation must be passed by both chambers in identical form.   Not all legislatures are bicameral and even those which are often empowers one chamber (the lower chamber) more than the other (in which case the chambers have asymmetrical powers).

Second, separation of powers means, of course, that the executive is institutionally separate from the legislature and does not have a formal role in the legislative process until the end thereof (and even then, it varies).   Yes, I am aware that the president can make suggestions (just not formal ones), that he functions as the head of his party, and that he has a vast PR machine at his disposal.  However, the fundamental nature of legislation within a separation of powers system means that any legislation actually initiated in the process has to originate with a legislator.  Separation of powers also means that when an impasse is reached between the legislature and the executive (or, for that matter, between the chambers) there is no institutional out—i.e., impasse can lead to utter inaction and there is nothing that can be done about it.  In parliamentary systems such as in the UK or even in semi-presidential systems like France, serious impasse can lead to early elections (on the theory that the public can weigh in on their preferred solution to the impasse in question).

Third, veto points (also called “veto gates”) are points in a process where specific actors can forestall action (i.e., they have a veto).  We in US usually think of the only veto as being in the hands of the President, and while it is true that US presidents have a formal power called a “veto” it is not the only place in the process that the legislative process can be stopped.  But think about it:  failure of one house of Congress to pass a bill is, in terms of outcome, the same as the President vetoing it.  Indeed, it is a more effective veto because it cannot be overridden by other actors in the system.

Thus:  legislation can fail to pass either chamber or either chamber can choose simply not to act.

On balance, impasse simply means inaction.  In other words, it makes proactive policy changes difficult (which is why, for example, health care reform has been so difficult to achieve or why Bush’s social security privatization was doomed from the get go).  However, if impasse occurs on something that requires action (like passing a continuing resolution to keep the government operating or the need to raise the debt ceiling so that borrowing can continue) or is in reaction to a given unforeseen event, then being one of the veto players conveys a great deal of power if said actor is willing to use the veto to stop the action in question from taking place.  Further, this power can be far disproportionate to the actual overall political significance of said actor (as measured in terms of population represented or seats held in a legislative body).  Indeed, when it comes to the peculiarities of the US Senate, sometimes just one Senator can block legislation or a nomination.

This is what happened in the recent debt ceiling fight:  one of the veto players was the House.  Even more specifically:  the House Republican caucus as the majority party in the chamber.   As the majority party of the House, it controls the schedule in that chamber.  The minority party has effectively no ability to call up legislation.  Further, the House Republican caucus was driven by the demands of a specific faction thereof, the Tea Party.  The Tea Party had the ability to act as veto player within the House Republican caucus, and the House Republican caucus controlled the lever that was the House.  As such, they were a key veto actor in the debt ceiling debate.  They were empowered because what was on the table was a need for action and impasse was unacceptable to several other actors in the process.  As a result, the Tea Party faction got a lot of what it wanted and was able to force other actors (most specifically the Democrats) into complying.  In other words, since the Tea Party faction had the power to veto anything that the Democrats wanted out of the debt ceiling negotiations, and because they were willing to allow an impasse to lead to inaction on the debt ceiling, they were able to get an outcome that was far closer to what they wanted than did several other actors who were involved.

And, as my OTB colleague (and fellow political scientist) Chris Lawrence noted the other day:  the House had to make the first move in this process.  As such, the House itself was a major veto actor and the House was controlled by the Republicans and the Republicans driven substantially by the Tea Party caucus.

Now, one may look at all of that and say “the system is broken”—but one would be wrong (at least if “broken” is taken to mean “no longer functioning the way is supposed to function” as in “my ear buds are broken because music only comes out of the left side”).  This is the way our legislative process works (and has for quite some time).

My fundamental point is this:  if one doesn’t like the outputs of the system it doesn’t mean the system is broken.  Of course, it may mean that the system is in need of reform (i.e., to change the way the machine works to create different types of processes and outcomes).  This is not an unimportant distinction.  If the system is broken, then it simply needs to be fixed, which implies somehow restoring it to its previous level of functionality.  If, however, things are functioning more or less as they should but the results are considered suboptimal (to be kind) then perhaps the mechanism requires not repair, but change.     Now, whether institutional change is actually warranted or what it might look like is a whole other debate and ranges into a far larger discussion.

Another key point about this situation is that the actor of most significance in the most recent debate was the House GOP and its Tea Party faction.  Because they were willing to use their veto to create an impasse, they were able to get the lion’s share of what they wanted out of said process.  As such, they should get the lion’s share of the blame or credit, depending on your disposition, for the fact that we had the debate we had and for the outcome of said debate.  The system provided them with that power, in fact.

——-

*By “properly” I mean a combination of as designed and as evolved.  At a minimum, it is working as it has for decades.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Deficit and Debt, Politics 101, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. PD Shaw says:

    I would just add that the number of interested parties, coupled with the number of potential resolutions to the issue, means that a deadline deal becomes increasingly likely. Each party wishes to see its position given maximum treatment before it will concede to a lesser position. Each side knowing that as time passes, being able to possess the last alternative to the unacceptable option (no deal) is key. The administration knowing that if the deadline is not held (or even suggested to be a week or two beyond the current deadline) would protract the matter painfully. Thus the last major debt limit crisis (during the GWBush administration) was only resolved in the last twenty-four hours.

    My point is simply that a deadline deal, coupled with subsequent commissions, is not only precedented, its a probable outcome in the system that Prof. Taylor describes where the stakes are high and a wide diversity of options exist.

  2. John Burgess says:

    I think the system worked as designed. I also think, though, that there are sub-standard parts within the system, e.g., people in Congress who do not belong in Congress. I’d like to see a change in the parts before tinkering with the system itself, that is, reform or repair. How to achieve that, however, is a far more difficult question.

  3. john personna says:

    @John Burgess:

    “sub-standard parts” is a good metaphor.

  4. ponce says:

    I think deep down, the Democrats are afraid the Republicans have more support than they do.

  5. jan says:

    There has been much discussion over the debt ceiling stalemate in Congress these past weeks/months. Many democrats, like John Kerry, are calling tea party members in the House ‘terrorists.’ However, you know that phrase coined in the last decade —-> “One man’s terrorist is another’s Freedom Fighter.” And, for one columnist in the UK’s Telegraph this is how she views the teas proactive role:

    Contrary to what the Obama Democrats claimed, the face-off in Congress did not mean that the nation’s politics were “dysfunctional”. The politics of the US were functioning precisely as the Founding Fathers intended: the legislature was acting as a check on the power of the executive.

    The Tea Party faction within the Republican party was demanding that, before any further steps were taken, there must be a debate about where all this was going……..

    And, again contrary to prevailing wisdom, their view is not naive and parochial: it is corroborated by the European experience. By rights, it should be Europe that is immersed in this debate, but its leaders are so steeped in the sacred texts of social democracy that they cannot admit the force of the contradictions which they are now hopelessly trying to evade.

    Telegraph: If we are to survive the looming catastrophe we need to face the truth

  6. john personna says:

    @jan:

    Contrary to what the Obama Democrats claimed, the face-off in Congress did not mean that the nation’s politics were “dysfunctional”. The politics of the US were functioning precisely as the Founding Fathers intended: the legislature was acting as a check on the power of the executive.

    You can even check the president from doing the right thing (a Grand Bargain to bring tax and spending in line with each other).

    The Tea Party faction within the Republican party was demanding that, before any further steps were taken, there must be a debate about where all this was going……..

    Except that’s not what they wanted. They wanted to produce a crisis now which would shake out a year later, in 2012 elections.

    They put the 2012 election before the nation’s solvency in 2011.

  7. john personna says:

    @jan:

    Were you against “kick the can” before you were for it?

  8. Liberty60 says:

    The system did work exactly as it was intended; but the Tea Party still deserve the term “terrorist”.

    The Consittution gives Congress power to sit on their hands and deny emergency assistance to starving people after an emergency, in exchange for some political points or other, but we would be perfectly fair in calling that “terrorism”.

    When you place the safety and well-being of the nation below your political program, yeah, you are a terrorist.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    @Liberty60:
    I’m not sure I’d use the word terrorist, but basically, that’s about right. The last time we had a substantial party within Congress that actively sought to harm the United States was 1860.

  10. JohnMcC says:

    Mr Taylor (?Dr Taylor)…it is very difficult to argue that the ‘Checks & Balances’ and ‘Veto Points’ of the Constitution were used by the protagonists of this recent ugly affair as the Founders meant them to be used. So in that sense, you are correct in saying that ‘the system is not broken’.

    I think that we need to move the discussion back from the details of the machinery at least by one quantum leap and ask ‘does it work’?

    There are three points to what we think of as modern democracy, if I may be bold and assume a lecturing tone. First, there needs to be a solution to the problem of succession. Done.

    Second, “we” should govern “us”. This is not so much reality as many Americans experience it. My TeaParty sister (a very damn fine and intelligent person) expresses her political thoughts as a kind of lament at being victimized by ‘elites’ that do not have any concern for her interests. The size of the TeaParty tells us that this is not an isolated phenomenon. Surely there is some way that this widespread emotion can be called a ‘failure’.

    Third, we wish to be governed by the “best” of us. I’m sure I hardly need to go into the lamentable state of political leaders. Was Nixon the ‘best of us’? One of the biggest election wins in history preceded his resignation. This seems to me to also be a ‘failure’. I think, with Bill Buckley, that I’d rather be governed by the first 500 numbers in the phone book than the present congress. I’ve proposed that we send people to congress using the system we use to find jurors. Little notice in the mail: You’ve been selected to serve in the House of Representatives for the next two years.

    In a really large, cosmic sense — the American people are much much much better than the American government.

  11. Russell says:

    I’d quibble with the idea that the tea party held veto power over the house republican program. The only reason this was the case was because with the speaker wanted them to have that power (or appear to have that power to strengthen his bargaining position) or because the speaker was only willing to count republican votes. This either demonstrates pretty cynical politics, pretty weak leadership, or pretty limited interest in doing the right thing for the country in favor of political advantages. None of these possibilities speaks well of Mr Boehner.

  12. michael reynolds says:

    @JohnMcC:

    In a really large, cosmic sense — the American people are much much much better than the American government.

    I guess I don’t see how that can be true. In a democracy the people have the power. With the power comes responsibility.

  13. RW Rogers says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The last time we had a substantial party within Congress that actively sought to harm the United States was 1860.

    True. Here’s hoping that 150 years from now, if the American republic is still around, substantial numbers of its citizenry are not still arguing about who was right.

    (BTW, Michael: someone near & dear to me got a thinly-disguised fundraising call from the GOP the other day asking who she preferred to see as the 2012 nominee. Her answer: “I haven’t missed a single election of any kind in 56 years but I think I’ll skip 2012. If I don’t, you can be sure I won’t be voting for one of those nitwits.” *LOL*)

  14. jan says:

    @john personna:

    You can even check the president from doing the right thing (a Grand Bargain to bring tax and spending in line with each other).

    The “Grand Bargain” was nothing but ‘words.’ You guys are supporting a leader who had some trial balloons out there called a “Grand 4 trillion Bargain.” Boehner showed interest and thought he was reaching some kind of ‘verbal’ agreement, when Obama suddenly threw in another 400 billion of revenues at the deal, on top of the 800 billion Boehner was tending to go along with. But, I’ve said all this before, and you keep going back to what you want to believe in, or have read elsewhere. Anyway, Obama fouled his own deal, and then pointed the finger at Boehner as being the spoiler because he walked away from Obama’s altered words.

    Except that’s not what they wanted. They wanted to produce a crisis now which would shake out a year later, in 2012 elections.

    Yes, this is the new progressive ‘line.’ It’s been all over the Sunday news shows and progressive media to cast as much blame on the teas as possible. How one attempts to divert accountability is to quickly cast scathing remarks at someone else. Ironically, the teas and conservatives have been trying to avoid a financial crisis by not blindly passing another debt ceiling without substantial remedies to cutting the debt being addressed at the same time.

    Time will tell how all this is ultimately seen in the rear view mirror of history. The teas, though, are looking more and more like a David, while the dems are the monolithic Goliath. Considering that there are 60 self-identified teas in the House, and 4 in the Senate. That means that the teas comprise 64/535 of the total vote, or almost 12% of both branches of Congress. When you add in the bully pulpit, veto power of the Oval Office, the teas have a very small minority of say. They are up against a huge wall of democratic power. So, it’s pretty amazing how much you are crediting them with terrorizing the government.

    I suppose, though, you must have felt the same way about civil rights too — a disruptive minority who, like Rosa Parks, chose to take a stand (or, in her case not give up her seat) in order to be heard and affirmed. Dissent in this country is what has made this country better. Just because you don’t agree with the content of the teas dissent doesn’t make their rights any less legitimate. And, if you call them terrorists then you are basically calling anyone who stands up and says “No,” a terrorist too.

  15. michael reynolds says:
  16. michael reynolds says:

    @jan:
    They didn’t stand up and say “no.” They said, we will destroy the credit of the United States if we don’t get our way. We will harm the United States. That’s what they said.

    So spare us the sophistries. They threatened to harm their own country. And now they have harmed their own country.

  17. Xenos says:

    @michael reynolds: And why would they do such a thing?

    It appears they prefer the ruin of the country to it being successful yet denying them a position of privilege. They show all the patriotism of Benedict Arnold or Alcibiades.

  18. @jan:

    The “Grand Bargain” was nothing but ‘words.’

    And what else do we construct bargains from other than words?

  19. EddieInCA says:

    @jan:

    Jan –

    Don’t let the facts distract you from your regurgitation of talking points, even if they’re flat out lies.

    https://www.outsidethebeltway.com/sp-debt-downgrade-leads-to-same-old-washington-blame-game/#comment-1432656

  20. john personna says:

    @jan:

    The “Grand Bargain” was nothing but ‘words.’ You guys are supporting a leader who had some trial balloons out there called a “Grand 4 trillion Bargain.” Boehner showed interest and thought he was reaching some kind of ‘verbal’ agreement, when Obama suddenly threw in another 400 billion of revenues at the deal, on top of the 800 billion Boehner was tending to go along with.

    Let’s assume that’s true for a moment. I would improve US creditworthiness, wouldn’t it? The added revenue? That is, it would strengthen the US bond rating?

    See, what’s killin’ some of us here is that the folk who say “no, we don’t want to pay” manage to turn around and say “it’s your fault we can’t pay.”

    (You could have a credible argument about cuts over tax if there were named cuts, and not as I say another “kick the can” and committee report yet to be filed.)

  21. reflectionephemeral says:

    Nobody argued that the Republican/Tea Party’s actions violated the law or the Constitution.

    Creating a hostage crisis (in Mitch McConnell’s phrase, “a hostage worth ransoming”) over the debt ceiling, not the budget meant risking the US’s credit rating. (The hostage crisis, McConnell’s promise that this hostage crisis is the new normal, and the GOP’s refusal to discuss revenues led the S&P to downgrade our debt).

    It’s not that the Republicans’ unprecedented use of the filibuster, and holds of nominees to executive & judicial positions, and, now, hostage-taking in the vote to honor our existing obligations is illegal, it’s just that they are violating longstanding norms, greatly complicating normal governance.

    Federalist #10, arguing that faction would be unlikely to spread through a large swath of the country, didn’t foresee the Tea Party.

    We now have ideologically sorted-out political parties (which we didn’t have until around the 1990s), and a GOP that, given the experience of the last decade, appears to lack any policy principles whatsoever, and is therefore willing to try to burn Washington to the ground in order to save it.

    Yes, it’s not unconstitutional, but nor is it in keeping with the views of the Framers, nor of decades and centuries of practice and experience. Your column fails to rebut that argument, in my view.

  22. mantis says:

    Ironically, the teas and conservatives have been trying to avoid a financial crisis

    Hilarious. Tell another one.

  23. mattb says:

    Steven… Another excellent and educational post. I particularly liked how you spelled out exactly why the Tea Party aligned Representatives had a significant amount of power and relevancy in this particular case (contra some of the materials that Doug has recently written).

  24. mattb says:

    @Jan,

    Beyond the “it was just words issue” the vast majority of reports and accounts that came out of the Bohner/Obama negotiations is that Bohner had verbally agreed (just words again) to the complete deal, including the supposed “extra” 400 Billion in cuts but couldn’t get it through his caucus.

    Here’s a recent quote on the subject from Regan’s Solicitor General Charles Fried:

    When John Boehner at the height of the debt ceiling crisis answered him on the national media he simply did not tell the truth. He said that the president would not compromise, would not take yes for an answer, and wanted it all his own way. But he cannot have forgotten that he had negotiated Obama into far more cuts than Obama and his caucus had wanted, thought wise or even palatable in return for a modest increase in revenue to be achieved by closing egregious and unfair loopholes in personal and corporate taxes. This is the same compromise recommended by the “Gang of Six,” which included the extremely conservative and admirably patriotic Senator Tom Coburn, by the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson group, and by Republican economists like Martin Feldstein. It was the Speaker who, Arafat-like, walked away from that deal because he concluded he lacked the skill or the muscle or the spine to sell it to his own caucus. Let it be said that this compromise included recalculating the cost of living formula for social security—a change every responsible economist recommends—but the equally rigid Nancy Pelosi rejected.

    Barlett and others have also noted on Bohner walked away from his own deal. So if you are castigating people for empty words in negotiations, then Bohner is as much an example of this as Obama.

  25. john personna says:

    More good reading:

    Why Congress and S&P Deserve Each Other

    Both fun and accurate.

  26. @reflectionephemeral:

    Two quick thoughts:

    1) Fed 10 did not foresee political parties, save in the vaguest of ways.

    2) The theory put forth in Fed 10 does not, at all, take into account separation of powers. If you want Madison on sep of powers, go to Fed 51.

  27. @Steven L. Taylor: Thanks for replying, Mr. Taylor.

    I think that’s an aside to my main point: the Republican/Tea Party’s actions aren’t illegal or unconstitutional, but they do violate longstanding norms, complicating normal governance.

    The current system isn’t working as it’s worked from time out of mind.

    It wouldn’t take a Constitutional Convention– or even an Amendment– for the Senate to change its rules & reform the filibuster & the practice of holds, & to change the law so that we, like the rest of the world, don’t have a “debt ceiling” vote where Congress decides that it will, in fact, honor the obligations it’s already incurred. Actors in the system have thrown themselves into gumming up the works in a way the country has never seen. It calls for rule changes in Congress, not a Constitutional Convention or anything.

  28. @reflectionephemeral:

    Well, I am all for revision of Senate rules on the filibuster as well as holds and blocks. However, that wasn’t really an issue in this most recent debate.

    However, the behavior of the Tea Party is not really really new, it is just a confluence of a very public usage of that behavior coupled with a very dramatic, high stakes application of said behavior.

    And yes: I would be quite happy to get rid of the debt ceiling.

  29. @Steven L. Taylor: Thanks for keeping the conversation going. I’m not sure that we actually disagree very much at all.

    I brought up holds & filibusters because it seems to me that a discussion of the charge that the system is “broken” tends to involve the recent Republican abuse of these longstanding practices.

    I do think that it’s fair to say that the debt ceiling hostage crisis does reflect an unprecedented embracing of brinkmanship and a new attitude toward governance, though not, as you point out, a demonstration that our institutions are broken.

    The fundamental issue is that, for Republicans, party allegiance has nothing to do with preferred policy outcomes. Instead, politics is a form of entertainment & a demonstration of pride in one’s identity.

    There’s no other way to make sense of the party of Boehner, McConnell, Ryan, Cantor, et al– all of whom supported Medicare Part D, and the revenue reductions of the 2000s, and the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the WH that fought Raich up to the SC, and the Patriot Act, and NCLB, and 20 years of support for an individual health insurance mandate– now styling themselves as defenders of balanced budgets and small government. Or, for that matter, to make sense of the emotions of the agitated whites of the Tea Party.

    In a world where politics is almost entirely untethered to policy preferences, normal politics becomes impossible. What’s there to bargain about, when a party values oppositionism more than getting its way on any policy matter?

    (Incidentally, if people want to argue that “the current system doesn’t work,” the best way to do so in my view is to look at use of force w/o Congressional approval. Bush Sr. in Somalia, Clinton in Yugoslavia, and Obama in Libya are the examples that leap to mind, which didn’t cause anything close to the hullabaloo we just saw over the debt ceiling).

  30. mattb says:

    @reflectionephemeral: Interesting and thoughtful comments. The one that seems particularly worth discussing is:

    The fundamental issue is that, for Republicans, party allegiance has nothing to do with preferred policy outcomes. Instead, politics is a form of entertainment & a demonstration of pride in one’s identity.

    In terms of the second sentence, I think this holds true for most “engaged” party actors and activists — whether we are talking about Republicans or Democrats. In fact, one might argue that the entire party system has always been about a demonstration of pride/shorthand for one’s identity.

    As far as the first sentence, I think the problem gets to the heart of a larger problem — methods for predicting policy outcome. I tend to believe that most of the Tea Party Representatives are true believers and felt that taking the debt ceiling “hostage” (McConnell’s words) was an effective way of achieving a policy outcome. Based on their statements its also clear that many of these individuals did not believe — whether due to taking things on faith or gravitating to the narrative they felt matched their worldview — the immediate stakes were as high as (the rest of us) believed.

    Taking the two sentences together, one must also ask — whether right or wrong — if the assumption is that the best way to achive one’s policy goals in the long term is to ensure that their party retains control of the Government in the short term. If that becomes the accepted case, then putting party above policy seems a logical progression even if the policy results it produces (in the short term) are less than logical.

  31. PaulieG says:

    one might argue that the entire party system has always been about a demonstration of pride/shorthand for one’s identity.

    One might but one would be wrong. The party system serves multiple purposes, the most important of which, it seems to me, is simple machine politics. A mechanism for order, for getting and controlling money and people to do political work, for whipping votes, for control. Those are the atributes important to the pols. And sure, to give the voters something to rally around and feel good about, which is part of the process of control and manipulation necessary to get something difficult and complicated done in the face of ennui, apathy, anger, and opposition, and other factors working against the party’s interests.

  32. mattb says:

    The party system serves multiple purposes,

    the most important of which, it seems to me, is simple machine politics.

    Agreed on this and the rest of the points in your post.