Friday, December 28, 2012

Why Congress Stinks

As I write this, the twitter-verse is popping as the last-ditch meeting between House leaders, Senate leaders, and President Obama to avoid the fiscal cliff (the effects of which are well explained here) has failed. The scuttlebutt from the Washington press corps, or as I like to call them "democracy's first-responders," is that Obama asked for one of two things:

  1. Tax cuts for those making over $250,000 a year should expire, while those under that income threshold should be extended. Unemployment insurance should be extended for those unemployed for more than 6 months.
  2. If #1 is not acceptable, propose a bill that can pass both houses of Congress.
The Senate has already passed a bill that includes the policies from #1, so the major impediment here is the Republican controlled House. Unfortunately Speaker Boehner's caucus would rather pass kidney stones than any legislation that might appear like a tax hike. The result: Congressional gridlock and a Presidential address about Congressional gridlock at the rarely used Friday 5:45pm holiday weekend time slot.


And now Obama has issued his statement. If no two-party deal is reached, he will ask Harry Reid to bring proposal #1 to the floor of the Senate for a vote, effectively daring Senate Republicans to filibuster it if they'd like. Presumably they won't, and enormous pressure will fall on House Republicans to pass the same bill they could have passed weeks if not months earlier.

Joseph de Maistre once said that "people get the government they deserve," but surely no people deserve a Congress this wretched. The problem is not a partisan one—there have been too many examples in US History of bipartisan agreements between Congress controlled by one party and the White House controlled by the other. The problem is gerrymandering. Redistricting was employed after the 2010 census and midterms to insure safe seats for a Republican majority, which logically rendered other districts safe for a Democratic minority. Dave Weigel pointed out how effective and outrageous redistricting worked in the blue state of Pennsylvania this election cycle, where Obama won the state by 5 points while Republicans won 13 of the 18 Congressional districts.

Gerrymandering is a lot like burning fossil fuels; it gives you a lot of power in the short-term, but it'll destroy you in time. That seems to be what is happening to the Republican Party. So well crafted are these districts that right wing House Republicans only fear assaults from further to their right flank. So the Republican Party is incentivised to work only for the minority that elected it, not the interests of the nation. That is a recipe for minority party status and diminishing national influence will only augment the fury of their ideological faith. At an operational level gerrymandering works against the reasoning of James Madison in Federalist 10, his famous essay defusing the fear of the "violence of faction" in a large republic. His description of small societies reads as a blueprint for gerrymandered districts:
The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

Nate Silver has quantified the radicalizing of the House through gerrymandering in the most recent post at fivethirtyeight, wondering if no-compromise government is a norm we should all learn to accept. Perhaps he is right; it is a difficult problem to solve, since politicians on both sides have every motivation to block its reform. But different ideas have cropped up, and from all across the political spectrum. Some political scientists have called for proportional representation from states. has called for independent commissions for redistricting and multi-member districts. Others have taken a more mathematical approach by considering the problem of districts as a geometric one rather than a political one. These solutions come from computer scientists at UTEP as well as (unexpectedly) the ultra-conservative Heartland Institute.

If the fiscal cliff has you down on the House, just remember that the Senate has its own special dysfunctionality to work through. Democratic Senators have been pushing for filibuster reform for some time now because of Republican exploitation of the tactic. After the election Harry Reid finally got serious about it, even claiming that he might push through a partisan rule-change with 51 votes. This threat got a number of senior senators from both parties antsy, and they've proposed new bipartisan rule-changes, which sounds more politically appealing but has the possibility of doing nothing to change the Senate.

As Kevin Drum observes, this will leave Obama to deal with "fanatic Republicans and mushball Democrats" for the foreseeable future.

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