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.