Archive for the 'House of Representatives' Category

Vote for the smart, hardworking one

[by JSC5]

For a couple unrelated reasons, I’ve watched more legislative committee hearings in the past week (about 20 hours worth) than the average political junky will watch in a lifetime. It wasn’t an experience I’d really recommend to anyone else, so let me save you the trouble and summarize the take-home lesson: the vast majority of legislators in this country don’t know the first thing about anything. If we really understand that, then we should start changing the way we vote.

It’s true that your average voter dislikes a number of things about politicians. They’re perceived as being  slightly above used car salesmen in terms of trustworthiness. They’re seen as baby-kissing blowhards, shills, ideologically extreme, and creatures of special interests. But I don’t think voters usually think of politicians as dumb, ill-informed, or lazy. The stereotypical pol is far too devious and calculating to be dumb or ignorant!

But I’m here to tell you that your average politician actually is ill-informed and not very interested in learning. It’s true on the federal level, where the entire saga from the crash in 2008 to the financial regulation bill today has been hampered by a basic ignorance of how financial markets work, how they interface with the real economy, and how government policies work in this sphere. The (relatively) informed debate on health care reform is the one exception that highlights the general rule. Health care has been item #1 in progressive politics for several decades. Any politician that wanted to get progressive support had to get educated on it. And once it became a live debate on the federal level — ie, in the last 17 years or so — every politician that wanted conservative support had to bone up on the subject as well. But there aren’t many issues out there with that kind of electoral importance. In fact, it’s hard to think of a single one right now that carries the same import among the groups that determine what politicians care about.

That means politicians are free to be as ignorant as they want. And as uninformed as your average pol is on the federal level, it’s even worse in the state capitol: the elections aren’t as competitive, the activist and lobbying interests aren’t as well organized, the agendas are thinner, and elite politicians usually leave as soon as possible, dropping the average.

This leads to two unfortunate outcomes: (1) staff and lobbyists fill in the gaps left by politicians’ ignorance, letting them drive much of what happens in the legislature, and (2) most politicians are bench warmers, with only a few engaged pols taking an active role in the process. As a professor in college used to say, 90% of the work in Congress is done by 10% of the people.

This surely isn’t news to those of you who have any experience in legislative politics. But for the rest of the gin-swilling*, unwashed** masses: do yourself a favor and vote for the hardworking, smart guy/gal in the race. It’s hard for me to tease out how important competence is compared with policy positions, but it’s definitely in contention. A willingness to do your homework and come to a committee hearing prepared is rare, but the rewards for those who do — and for their constituents — are great.

As a post-script, let me say that while I’m as critical (if not more so!) of politicians as the next guy, I’m actually with Jonathan Bernstein in saying that I actually like politicians as a group. At least part of it, for me, is the fascination with a set of people who have basically said, “I’m opening up myself to be absolutely despised, denigrated, and mistrusted by a broad swath of society because” … well, fill in the blank. There are lots of ways to finish that sentence, but nearly all of them at least make for an interesting character.

* Not that there’s anything wrong with swilling gin! It’s just a catchy way of describing the general public I picked up from a fun, pompous professor I once had.

** Being unwashed actually is something of a problem. Luckily hygiene standards have improved greatly since the 19th century. But there’s still those select few, primarily hipsters, who have yet to discover ironic bathing.

Leviathan on hold

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is now law, and as much as this is a big victory for 30 million people without insurance and anyone else who will get sick in the future and need insurance, it’s also a victory for Executive power. “I believe this commission is the largest yielding of sovereignty from the Congress since the creation of the Federal Reserve,” says administration budget director Peter Orszag, via Ezra Klein. And given how ineffective Congress is these days, that may actually be good thing.

Orszag is specifically referring to the Independent Payment Advisory Board created under ACA. The Board’s job is to propose cost-saving measures for Medicare to keep cost inflation no higher than the average 5-year GDP growth rate plus 1%. And the Board has a great deal of power. Here’s Ezra explaining:

If Congress approves the board’s recommendations and the president signs them, they go into effect. If Congress does not vote on the board’s recommendations, they still go into effect. If Congress votes against the board’s recommendations but the president vetoes and Congress can’t find the two-thirds necessary to overturn the veto, the recommendations go into effect. It’s only if Congress votes them down and the president agrees that the recommendations die.

My guess is that the political equilibrium will be for the Board to make proposals and for the Congress and President to ignore them and thereby allow them to go into effect without being personally responsible. That gives the IPAB quite a bit of actual power to cut costs in what will soon become the largest item in the federal budget. And who decides who will be on the IPAB? The President, with the advice and consent of the Senate. The Board’s 15 members will all have 6-year terms, renewable once.

Another big win for executive power in the ACA is the role given to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, currently Kathleen Sebelius. The text of the Affordable Care Act says that the secretary shall define, determine, or create 1,697 things. New powers accruing to the Secretary include the ability to define specific benefits and regulate insurance options on the exchanges.

There are two lessons here. First, for Republicans: this is what happens when you adopt a complete rejectionist strategy instead of negotiating to improve the bill. Certainly many liberals were never interested in bipartisanship, but House Blue Dogs and Senate centrists like Baucus, Landrieu, Lieberman, Lincoln, and Nelson were dying for some bipartisan cover. Left to negotiate amongst themselves, Democrats came up with a bill that expands the discretionary powers of the presidency over the congress and the states. Presumably some authentic conservatives may have liked to avoid this situation. So next time, Republicans, try playing the game instead of taking your ball and going home.

Second, this may just push the Democrats to reform Senate procedure. As Prof. Bernstein has been saying since ACA passed, Republicans are likely to start blaming every single problem in the health care system on the newly-passed law, much like they blamed Obama and the stimulus for every economic problem after January 2009. That gives the administration and its party a large incentive to make sure the law is implemented as professionally as possible. The problem is that all the key figures for implementation (the Health Secretary, dozens of other sub- and assistant-secretaries, and the IPAB) are administration appointees, and the appointment process is broken. At this point in his presidency, Obama has had far fewer of his nominees approved by the Senate than his predecessor. Because of arcane Senate rules like unanimous consent and the anonymous hold, staffing up a modern administration turns out to be very, very difficult in a climate of partisan obstruction. The administration and the party have clearly been annoyed by this for a while, but the need to implement the ACA should give them an extra push to do something about the problem at the beginning of the next congress.

David Brooks: *still* an alien

Brooks is back, and so is his misunderstanding (unintentional or otherwise) of American politics. In today’s column, David Brooks’ main argument is that Democrats are too emotional on the issue of health care reform and are therefore insufficiently committed to deficit and debt reduction. Here’s Brooks:

For the Democrats, expanding health care coverage is an emotional hot spot. … There is something morally impressive in the Democrats’ passion on this issue. At the same time, it’s interesting to compare it to their behavior on other issues in which they have no emotional investment.

Now I’d like to go point-by-point through the rest of Brooks’ argument and evaluate his claims. Quotations from the column will be indented block quotes. My responses will be normal text. It’s longer than my usual post, but Brooks’ argument is just that bad.

Continue reading ‘David Brooks: *still* an alien’

David Brooks is an alien

I usually don’t spend too much time trying to figure David Brooks out. My quick and dirty read on Brooks is that he’s reflexively and unthinkingly moderate, or rather just to the right of center. Like social studies teachers of yore, Brooks thinks there’s something particularly magical about compromise, incrementalism, tradition, bipartisanship, and the happy medium. Don’t get me wrong, those things are all great in their own way, but some things just don’t lend themselves to such an analysis. Yet Brooks insists on jamming every little policy or political issue he comes across into that one analytical mold, like a three-year-old doing a jigsaw puzzle. I personally prefer a little more flexibility in my analytical toolbox.

That said, I’m not completely anti-Brooks. The man has written some nice columns, and it’s good to have a voice of reason talking to right-of-center folks. But today’s column really makes me wonder if Brooks isn’t actually human, but an alien trying to understand our political system and failing miserably.

Here’s Brooks’ opening sentences:

Going in, I was as cynical as everybody else about the Blair House health care forum. I was planning to watch for a half-hour and then write about something else.

But the event was more meaningful than that. Most of the credit goes to President Obama. The man really knows how to lead a discussion. He stuck to specifics and tried to rein in people who were flying off into generalities. He picked out the core point in any comment. He tried to keep things going in a coherent direction.

Moreover, he seemed to be trying to get a result.

The result, he goes on to argue, is a possible compromise between Democratic and Republican health care policies.

Because of an odd confluence of events (overabundance of leisure, and a rural residence with little to do beyond trudging in the woods and going for a run – which I had already done that day), I ended up watching 5 of the 7 hours of the health care summit yesterday. Now, I’m no expert on American government or political science, and neither is Brooks. But what I saw at the health care summit was a President putting on a show for a very small number of Democratic legislators, primarily in the House, in order to give them cover and convince them to pass the Senate bill and then patch it via reconciliation in the Senate. That fact that Brooks thinks the summit was actually aimed at forging a bipartisan compromise shows his complete lack of understanding of the American political system. Just look at the five key structural incentives at work in the current health care process:

  • Actual negotiations on something this important and contentious, touching core constituencies in each party, cannot be conducted in public. As Matt Yglesias astutely pointed out a couple weeks ago, imagine if you were to negotiate with your significant other about whose parents house to go to for the holidays this year. Maybe you could reach an accommodation by seriously discussing your real preferences and likes and dislikes on the subject — if you could talk in private. But what if the negotiations were televised on CSPAN and piped right into your in-laws’ homes? Privacy is an essential component when negotiating about a compromise that would inevitably throw a major constituency of each party under the bus.
  • Democrats have little incentive to further compromise the Senate bill (as amended by the President’s proposals for a reconciliation patch). First, it’s already a large, substantive compromise to conservative ideas. Of course, Democrats have won zero Republican support despite these very painful compromises from the liberal ideal. They’re getting tired of unilaterally compromising. Second, and most important, all the political incentives for the party as a whole point towards passing the bill as is, and leadership is working overtime to make sure the individual members understand that.
  • Republicans have zero incentive to compromise. As many observers like Ezra Klein have argued, in the US system of government and particularly in the Senate, “the minority has both the incentive and the power to make the majority fail” and “the minority has learned that they profit in the next election when the majority is judged a failure.” That pretty much sums up the incentives facing any minority party in the modern political climate, and last time I checked, Republicans were in the minority.
  • Health policy works best when comprehensive, and could be disastrous if done piecemeal. For more on this, do some reading on the ‘insurance death spiral’. Cost control, mandates, exchanges, subsidies, insurance reforms … these things all go together as essential pieces. Remove on, and it doesn’t work.

An educated, dispassionate observer of American politics should look at the summit and see it in light of these structural incentives. And we all know that Brooks is smart and dispassionate. But he watched the summit and saw a grand, substantive effort at bipartisan compromise. That makes Brooks either a wild-eyed, hopelessly-naive optimist, or an alien. I’m voting for the latter.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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