Time for Institutional Reform?

Erik Voeten Aug 1 '11

Yale profs Jacob Hacker and Oona Hathaway have an op-ed in today’s New York Times, which argues that the U.S. is facing more than just a debt crisis:

OUR nation isn’t facing just a debt crisis; it’s facing a democracy crisis. For weeks, the federal government has been hurtling toward two unsavory options: a crippling default brought on by Congressional gridlock, or — as key Democrats have advocated — a unilateral increase in the debt ceiling by an unchecked president. [..] The debate has threatened to play out as a destructive but all too familiar two-step, revealing how dysfunctional the relationship between Congress and the president has become. The two-step begins with a Congress that is hamstrung and incapable of effective action. The president then decides he has little alternative but to strike out on his own, regardless of what the Constitution says. Congress, unable or unwilling to defend its role, resorts instead to carping at “his” program, “his” war or “his” economy — while denying any responsibility for the mess it helped create. The president, on the defensive, digs in further.

I am not sure if the debt ceiling debate is the best illustration of this dynamic but some of their other examples ( including Libya) seem quite accurate. The refrain is that the current institutional rules give Congress incentives to be strident, thereby giving the President incentives to go it alone and ultimately undermine the power of Congress.

Their proposed solutions are institutional reforms, such as limiting supermajority rules (especially the fillibuster) and fast-track procedures that allow for up-or-down votes. They argue, plausibly, that such reforms may actually enhance the power of Congress by discouraging the President to go-it-alone.

I’ll let Sarah and our other legislative experts weigh in on the wisdom of these proposals. Fwiw, I am sympathetic and I would add the various rules that allow individual Congressmen disproportionate influence over the fate of legislative proposals. The big question is how one would negotiate such institutional reform. Congress has essentially been able to design its own rules and political science (or common sense) offer us no good reasons to expect socially optimal outcomes under such circumstances (where socially optimal means optimal for the US public, not US Congressmen). Congress now has historically low approval ratings and manages to make the EU’ s decision-making procedures look smooth. I doubt that changing a few rules would fix all of that but it would be useful to seriously consider even small steps towards a better Congress. But where would one look in American politics to start a reform debate that could actually go some place other than the op-ed pages? To paraphrase Russell Shorto, sometimes social planning technocrats would be nice (especially if fresh bread is a side benefit).