Campaigns and elections

Posted Prices and the Capitol Hill Stalemate Machine

Andrew Gelman Oct 17 '11

Thomas Ferguson writes:

Pundits talk nostalgically about the good old days, when representatives from the two parties regularly played golf together and compromised their differences in the name of the larger national interest. Today such outcomes are said to be impossible. But why, exactly?

The rivers of political money that now swirl 24/7 around Capitol Hill surely play a role in producing the great D.C. stalemate machine. But tired recitations of astronomical campaign-finance spending totals don’t tell the full story. Neither does the observation that since the 1990s, Republican leaders both in Congress and out have raised enormous amounts of money from investor blocs that plainly hope to roll back the New Deal as a whole. We need to look at the bigger picture. The tidal wave of cash has structurally transformed Congress. It swept away the old seniority system that used to govern leadership selection and committee assignments in Congress. . . .

Uniquely among legislatures in the developed world, our Congressional parties now post prices for key slots on committees. You want it — you buy it, runs the challenge. They even sell on the installment plan: You want to chair an important committee? That’ll be $200,000 down and the same amount later, through fundraising. . . .

Big interest groups (think finance or oil or utilities or health care) can control the membership of the committees that write the legislation that regulates them. Outside investors and interest groups also become decisive in resolving leadership struggles within the parties in Congress. You want your man or woman in the leadership? Just send money. Lots of it.

Ferguson continues:

On the edges, of course, factors besides money still play some role, especially in ordinary committee assignments. But the New Normal looks like this: In 2009, when the Democrats controlled the House, their leadership slotted many junior representatives on the Financial Services Committee so they could haul in cash with both hands to enhance their prospects for reelection. . . . But the real rub is the way the system centralizes power in the hands of top Congressional leaders. In the new pay-to-play system, individual representatives dole out contributions to their colleagues to gain support for their individual bids for key positions within each chamber. But the system also requires them to make large contributions to the House and Senate national campaign committees. . . .

This seems like a good topic for further quantitative research.