Yet Again, Institutional Design Matters

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 if 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.

Note:  cross-posted at OTB.

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