I’m not sure how well Freddie and I addressed the central question of our discussion last night, to wit, how to overcome the institutional problems in our representative democracy. But the discussion about health care alternatives and the lack of significant hope for Wyden-Bennett has gotten me thinking about the role of divided government not only in limiting government (which is a standard libertarian argument for divided government), but also, counterintuitively, in ensuring that changes (whether of the government-growing, government-limiting, or size-neutral variety) that do become law are meaningful.
In the six months that Democrats have had control of the Presidency and overwhelming control of the House and Senate, they have pushed three particularly major pieces of legislation: a stimulus package, cap-and-trade, and health care reform. In each case, Republican/conservative opposition has been pretty much unified and, uhh, outspoken (Sens. Collins and Snowe notwithstanding). Also in each case, the resulting legislation has been a huge letdown to liberal wonks and, really, the liberal “base” in general – at best, this group has viewed the legislation as a disappointingly inadequate (if important) step in the right direction, and in some cases has even viewed it as counterproductive (see, e.g., the reaction of various environmental groups to Waxman-Markely).
In response, liberals have typically been blaming “Blue Dog” Democrats for insisting on watering the legislation down to a ridiculous level, although I’ve also seen attempts to blame Republicans for having no interest in negotiating in good faith such that the only way to pass legislation is to horse-trade with the Blue Dogs.
To a certain extent, I think this finger-pointing is accurate – Blue Dog Democrats with relatively conservative constituencies have very much been at the center of watering down these proposals, or at least adding on various goodies for their constituencies that have the effect of undermining the legislation’s purpose. Similarly, there would be little need for horse-trading with the Blue Dogs if Republicans had any interest in passing legislation that would fix the problems these piece of legislation are supposed to fix – that’s not to say that the legislation would meet the liberal ideal if Republicans were serious about these problems, just that it would better reflect good faith ideas about how to correct those problems. So, if Republicans were serious about health care, for instance, the result wouldn’t be the liberal ideal of single-payer, but it would probably be something along the lines of Wyden-Bennett, which just about everyone agrees would be a meaningful reform that would solve a lot of our system’s biggest problems.
At the same time, though, this finger-pointing at Blue Dogs and Republicans misses something pretty important – no matter who’s in power, there are always going to be squishy centrists on the side of the majority who have constituencies that need to be bribed and/or appeased in any reform legislation. Similarly, whenever you have single-party control of government, the opposition party will have no real reason to do anything other than be the “Party of No” – if a reform achieves its goals, the party in power will get all the credit, ensuring the party out of power falls even further out of power; if the reform fails, the party out of power will be able to heap all the blame on the party in power – but only if the party out of power almost uniformly opposes the legislation.
There are exceptions to this rule, to be sure, but by and large I don’t think there’s anything unique about a party as far out of power as the Republicans refusing to assist in crafting meaningful reform, nor do I think there’s anything unusual about majority legislators from squishy districts seeking to water the reform down enough to keep it from jeopardizing their hold on elective office. This isn’t to give moral justification for those actions – just to say that the cause of these actions is systemic rather than a question of a few “bad” Democrats or an abnormally dishonest group of Republicans.
Beyond that, unified government may also invite more, rather than less, influence from narrow interest groups on the legislative process. This is simply because in a unified government, interest groups need only focus on lobbying a small group of people. They can mostly ignore the party out of power because that party is, for the most part, going to vote “no” on just about anything and will thus have little input on the wording of the legislation itself; similarly, they may in some instances be able to focus almost entirely on only one branch of government where the other branch of government is likely to just rubber stamp the other’s proposals.
On the other hand, when you have divided governmentof some sort, a lot of these concerns may fall by the wayside. Both parties will have a strong incentive to negotiate in good faith since they will not want to be credibly portrayed as standing in the way of a meaningful reform effort but will also not want to have to face the blame if that reform effort fails to achieve its goals. This is doubly true because reforms will just about always resonate with Americans in theory, regardless of whether that reform would succeed in practice. So in a divided government, the goal of both parties is much more likely to be the implementation of reforms that actually go a long way to achieving their stated goal rather than the implementation of whatever reform is acceptable to squishy centrists.
Additionally, the role of interest groups is at least somewhat mitigated by the fact that now they will need to divide their resources to lobby both parties and both branches of government since there’s no guarantee of which party or branch’s version is going to predominate. In other words, if they’re going to have any input in the final version of the bill, they’re going to have to persuade all parties to the negotiations rather than just a handful of squishy centrists who hold the balance of power.
A quick hypothetical to illustrate my point: imagine, if you will, that the PUMA movement somehow managed to succeed in electing John McCain to the Presidency such that Democrats were able to simultaneously obtain the types of legislative majorities they currently enjoy. McCain enters office after having campaigned on a health care reform that, although seriously unpopular with liberals, is also conceptually reconcilable with Sen. Wyden’s proposal (which has exised for years). Democrats, seeing an opportunity to either embarass McCain or push through meaningful reform that will be popular with their base, decide to make a push for Wyden’s bill.
This immediately puts McCain in a tough spot, even if his campaign promises on health care were mere platitudes. If he opposes the legislation, Democrats will force it through, unchanged; “squishy” Dem centrists will even support the legislation since they know it will get vetoed and will make great fodder for their next campaign when they get to proclaim themselves as reformers without any regard for whether that refom, if implemented, would have actually been popular with their constituents. Meanwhile, McCain’s veto of this popular, but entirely hypothetical, reform will be used against him again and again and again.
On the other hand, if McCain simply supports the legislation without criticism, he runs the risk of being blamed for any failures in that legislation by his own party. Moreover, if he just simply rubber stamps the legislation at arms’ length, it will be marginally more difficult for him and his party to claim credit for any of the legislation’s successes since it will be portrayed as entirely the work of the other party. On the other hand, if he negotiates in good faith, he’ll be able to claim credit for any of the bill’s successes, while simultaneously bragging about his victory in blocking Provision X, which he will say would have clearly been the end of Western Civilization as we know it.
It is thus in McCain’s interest to negotiate in good faith with Congress to arrive at a bill that both sides think will work without having too many obvious and unacceptable collateral consequences.
This isn’t to say that divided government is a cure-all that ensures that all our problems will be competently dealt with. Instead, it’s just to say that divided government makes three things more likely: 1. Where there is no national consensus on the existence of a problem, no legislation will try to fix that alleged problem; 2. Where there is a national consensus on the existence of a problem, legislation will be strongly pushed that seeks to solve that problem; and 3. Legislation that passes will be the result of good-faith negotiations about how best to solve the problem.
Conversely, unified government makes it more likely that: 1. There will be more legislation where only one side of the political spectrum sees the existence of a problem; 2. There will be less legislation where there is a consensus on the existence of a problem since solutions to that problem will, in some instances, be politically inconvenient to the party in power, while the party out of power will have little incentive to push meaningful reform for which the party in power will be able to take credit; and 3. Legislation that becomes law will be significantly undermined, possibly to the point of being counter-productive, by intra-party horse trading and more concentrated interest group influence.