Yet Again, Institutional Design Matters

It would be nice if columnists for major newspapers would consult political science, rather than Hollywood, for their understanding of our system.

Maureen Dowd wrote last week:

How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn’t know how to work the system. And it’s clear now that he doesn’t want to learn, or to even hire some clever people who can tell him how to do it or do it for him.

It’s unbelievable that with 90 percent of Americans on his side, he could get only 54 votes in the Senate. It was a glaring example of his weakness in using leverage to get what he wants. No one on Capitol Hill is scared of him.

There is a lot wrong with this assessment.  On a general level it incorrectly assumes that the president can make things happen if he just tries hard enough.  (Of course, the fantastical nature of Dowd’s position is underscored by the fact that she wonders why Obama’s White House isn’t more like the fictitious one depicted in The American President“).

Beyond that, let me address a couple of specifics, starting at the bottom with “No one on Capitol Hill is scared of him.”   There is really only two ways a President can make members of congress scared—1) if that president can, by campaigning, influence the electoral fortunes of the legislators in question, or 2) if that president can somehow affect key legislation of importance to that legislator.

So, let’s consider:  there is only one more election where Obama will be relevant.   That election is over a year away, and will only effect one third of the chamber in question.  Further, if a given Senator is concerned more about how a given vote would play at home than how it plays nationally, what is Obama is going to do to scare said senator?

In regards to legislation:  given the current partisan configuration of the Congress, and especially given that body’s inability to pass significant legislation of late (and given the state of fiscal policy), exactly what legislative initiative is the president going to use to strike fear into the hearts of the Senate?

Of course, while it is true that there was 90% support in public opinion, the Senate is decidedly not designed to take national opinion into account.  Beyond that, the bill was able to garner majority support in the Senate, it just couldn’t garner a super-majority.

Beyond all of that, let’s consider the following:

Even House Republicans who had no intention of voting for the gun bill marveled privately that the president could not muster 60 votes in a Senate that his party controls.

If, in fact, House Republicans “had no intention of voting for the gun bill” then making a big deal about a failure in the Senate is a bit baffling, since the Republicans control the House of Representatives and, therefore, even if a bill passed the Senate, it would  have never have become law.

So, exactly what would be the point of expending energy to get votes that probably couldn’t be gotten for the purpose of seeing the bill fail anyway?

If we want to understand our own government, and the outcomes it produces, there are some key issues that have to be taken into account.

1. Having a majority of the seats in the Senate does not mean that a party controls that chamber.  This is not a new observation, but it seems to be one that has not truly sunk in.  I would note that this is not a new phenomenon, as even prior to the current era in which the chamber pretty much requires a super-majority to do much of anything, the minority always had a lot of influence over the operation of the chamber.

The bottom line is this:  true control of the Senate only can exist if the majority party has 60 seats and is relatively unified.  This is not a normal or likely outcome of any given electoral cycle.

2.  Symmetrical bicameralism means passing a bill in only one chamber only is the same thing as passing no bill at all.

3.  Separation of powers means that presidents are quite limited in their ability to force domestic policy through Congress.  It has ever been thus, and it is especially true in the context of a) a divided Congress in terms of different partisan majorities in both chambers, and b) a determined minority in the Senate that is willing to use its veto power over the process.

4.  Our system of election and representation does a terrible job of actually reflecting public opinion and translating it into public policy.  Legislators’ incentives are linked to pleasing relatively narrow sets of voters in primary elections.  This does not create a situation in which they are going to seek to conform to (or even have to pay much attention to) national public opinion (and may, in fact, not even require as much attention to state and district opinion as one might like to think).  Since a large majority of members of congress (in both chambers) come from safe districts (i.e., barring the unusual, we know which party will win the seat), then the only contest that matters for many members of congress is the primary election.  And groups like the NRA have a lot of influence over primaries.

Really, Dowd is buying into a number of myths that we American like to buy into.  The first is the assumption that because we are the World Greatest Democracy TM as invented by The Framers, that it it actually works in a way that creates results that reflect public sentiment. The second is that all it takes to accomplish legislative outcomes is Great Leadership. This myth assumes, therefore, that all that really matter is how well the president leads. However, this ignores that this is not how the machine of government is constructed.

FILED UNDER: 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. john personna says:

    There is really only two ways a President can make members of congress scared …

    In the good old days the FBI would dig up some dirt.

  2. JWH says:

    When has this country ever been composed of principled men and women voting in favor of what is best for the country?

    Incidentally, I can think of one changed factor that doesn’t get discussed too much, but is worth mentioning. From Politico:

    “Bribery isn’t what it once was,” said an official with one of the major gun-control groups. “The government has no money. Once upon a time you would throw somebody a post office or a research facility in times like this. Frankly, there’s not a lot of leverage.”

    It’s a lot more difficult today to buy off individual legislators with pork-barrel projects, it seems.

  3. Ben says:

    Legislators’ incentives are linked to pleasing relatively narrow sets of voters in primary elections.

    Interesting that you kept that statement party-neutral. Only one party has that problem. I haven’t yet heard of a good example of a sitting Democrat being primaried to their left because they weren’t ideologically pure enough

  4. @Ben:

    Interesting that you kept that statement party-neutral.

    The mechanism in question is, in fact, party-neutral.

    It is the case that that, at the moment, it is more significant for the Republicans because of factional conflicts doesn’t change the nature of the mechanism.

  5. stonetools says:

    The best thing about the Maureen Dod column is that response has been uniformly negative. Just about everyone agrees that her view of how politics is done is just not realistic nowadays, if it ever was. That means that the myths of the magic bully pulpit and of reasonable bipartisanism are pretty much dead. Sure, a few old hands like Bob Woodward and Bob Schieffer are going to continue to reminsce about Reagan and O’Neill having dinner together, or what LBJ used to do, but it looks like the media is finally accepting the reality of idelogically sorted parties that won’t be doing major bipartisan deals, no matter what the President does.
    Fred Hiatt, who used to be a big believer in the “Presidential leadership/reasonable bipartisanism ” myth, stated recently:

    In the week since modest gun control died in the Senate, those of us who don’t think guns make the country safer have been inclined to blame a few cowardly senators whose votes could have shifted the outcome.

    Unfortunately, the problem is bigger than that. Contrary to what then-Sen. Barack Obama told us in his inspiring breakout speech to the Democratic convention of 2004, there is a blue America and a red America. And the colors have been deepening over the decade since Obama spoke.

    Now he makes several useful points, but ignores the filibuster, which magnifies the power of red states in the Senate. He seems resigned to federal inaction and state level action for now, even while recognizing that some problems are of national scope that need national solutions. Still, at least, it seems now that the majority of the media is at least facing reality, rather than promoting mythology, about today’s politics. Baby steps.

  6. Septimius says:

    @Ben:

    You’ve never heard of Joe Lieberman?

  7. @Septimius: Good example.

    And only the oddness of Connecticut law allowed Lieberman to run as an independent after having lost the party nomination. (That at the utter weakness of the GOP in CT in that contest)

  8. Septimius says:
  9. C. Clavin says:

    Republicans typically refer to fiction for policy ideas…so what the heck…

  10. Andy says:

    @Ben:

    How about some data? (PDF File) It only goes through 2009, but it’s pretty interesting.

  11. BTW: I would note that the issue of being “primaried” is not my main point. One need not be directly challenged in the primary to still understand that the main institutional barrier to reelection in a safe district is the re-nomination process.

    The issue I am getting at is pretty fundamental to representative government: whom do the representatives actually have to worry about pleasing to stay in office?

  12. Ben says:

    What about these two guys?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/26/us/politics/2-house-democrats-defeated-after-opposing-health-law.html?_r=0

    Terrible examples. One of them was beaten by another incumbent after their districts merged. The other one lost because his district went from rural to primarily urban after Scranton and Wilkes-Barre were smushed into it after redistricting.

    I will, however, accept Lieberman as a good example of the this happening to a Democrat.

    But it shows how far afield someone has to go from the Democratic platform before a primary is a serious threat. Lieberman is a war hawk, he’s a homeland security hawk, he wants to ban violent video games, and he’s even more insane about supporting Israel than most Republicans. He’s basically a conservative in everything but gay and abortion rights.

  13. stonetools says:

    Professor Saylor, I think that the way that people are overcoming these instiutional obstacles is to elect legislaive supermajorities in the state legislatures

    According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), one party will control both chambers of the legislature in at least 43 states. Of these, 26 have unified Republican legislative control, while 18 have unified Democratic control.

    By contrast, just three states — Iowa, Kentucky and New Hampshire — will have a clear split in party control in 2013. (One state, Nebraska, has a unicameral, nonpartisan Legislature, while three states -Virginia, New York and Washington-each have one legislative chamber with partisan control that is hard to characterize

    Seems like the old love for divided government is fading away, since people actually want to get things done.
    This will lead to two really diiferent Americas-blue states where gays can marry , women have real reproductive rights, there are higher taxes and but more and better government services, and there are more gun safety and more consumer protection laws and workers rights, and red states where its the reverse.
    At the national level, my bet is that people will get so fed up with more budget “crises” and more legislative inaction, that they will elect a House majority and Senate supermajority by 2016, if not 2014. But the gridlock at the national level can’t go on for but so much longer, IMO.

  14. @stonetools:

    At the national level, my bet is that people will get so fed up with more budget “crises” and more legislative inaction, that they will elect a House majority and Senate supermajority by 2016, if not 2014. But the gridlock at the national level can’t go on for but so much longer, IMO.

    Perhaps, but I am skeptical. Part of my most fundamental point here is that the institutional parameters of our systems make it difficult to translate even a significant majority’s worth of frustration into actual legislative change.

  15. Andy says:

    @stonetools:

    At the national level, my bet is that people will get so fed up with more budget “crises” and more legislative inaction, that they will elect a House majority and Senate supermajority by 2016, if not 2014. But the gridlock at the national level can’t go on for but so much longer, IMO.

    What factors or trends do you see leading to that outcome? Personally, I see the opposite – the country is, in reality, divided on many issues and the parties are increasingly mirroring that split.

  16. stonetools says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: @Andy:

    If something happens like a government shutdown, I think you would see such a movement in the country. That’s why Republicans are trying hard NOT to shut down the government, while they create these so called budget “crises”. They could overreach, though, and likely will.

  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The second is that all it takes to accomplish legislative outcomes if Great Leadership. This myth assumes, therefore, that all that really matter is how well the president leads.

    Wow. Who’da thunk it? Lincoln was by far the worst President we’ve ever had.

  18. @OzarkHillbilly: Actually, you tap well into the mythological there: we Americans like to simplify the past into tales of great leaders and nothing more.

    “If only President X was more like Pick You Favorite” and so forth.

  19. Al Van Court says:

    The Dowd article is an interesting disucssion when you compare the gun legislation vs health care. A highly popular bill defeated and a unpopular bill passes (of course the popularity of each bill as quoted may be suspect, but what the heck) The key is that we elect representatives that act as they see fit. It is may be unfortunate, but it is true. This tied with the clallanges of defeating a sitting senator or long term respresentative makes event more true.

    One final point, I remember (having more than a bit of grey hair) being taught that passing bills was supposed to be difficult. If a bill had only the slimmest of margins, then is it really a good idea?

  20. @Al Van Court:

    I remember (having more than a bit of grey hair) being taught that passing bills was supposed to be difficult.

    There is a difference, however, between “difficult” and “nearly impossible” (which is about where we are at at the moment).