Saturday, August 1, 2009

Table that Motion

I said I'd stop talking about democratic frustration, so I'll just say that for no apparent reason at all a bunch of people are suddenly interested in massive reforms to the American constitutional system. I don't want to be unfair...Yglesias, for one, has been consistent. I'm reasonably certain that he was with the "nuclear option" GOP when eliminating the filibuster would have hurt his policy preferences. He's an honest majoritarian.

So: the first proposal I'm going to respond to here is Matt's request that Congress "rely on ad hoc committees for major pieces of legislation."

Both recent overreaching Speakers (Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich) made use of a similar method, task forces. What do we learn from that? First, in practical terms, it's difficult to differentiate between tools of the majority party and tools of the Speaker. That is, shifting power to "the party" really means shifting power to the Speaker, and Speakers -- especially ones with dictatorial powers within the House -- tend to be capricious, tend not to last long, and tend to rise and fall for reasons having little to do with specific policy differences with the caucus or conference. That is, put your faith in the Speaker, and you really don't know what you're getting.

Second, we learned from especially Newt's task forces that ad hoc committees are no defense against interest groups. Nor are Speakers likely to "appoint savvy dealmakers to chair the ad hoc committees rather than rigid ideologues or inept hacks." They're far more likely to appoint toadies and loyalists.

Look: it's true that the committee process appears to be weirdly random. But the specific issues that hung up the House and Senate this week weren't random at all. The Democrats in the House need to figure out a way to keep liberals and Blue Dogs happy, and negotiations between them are going to have to happen some place -- and I see no reason to think that Waxman is the wrong negotiator for the liberals. Meanwhile, while some members of the caucus want to be on record with the farthest "left" vote possible, quite a few others want to avoid floor votes that are to the "left" of the final bill, even if they support something to the left of the final bill. It seems to me that regular committees are more able to handle that sort of thing than would an ad hoc, Speaker-packed committee.

The Senate presents different problems, but I don't think it's accurate to say that either the committee system in general or Baucus in particular is the problem. Many Democrats, probably including the president, would like to bring along five to ten Republicans on a compromise bill. and so Senate Finance is where they're going to find out if that can happen. I think that preference -- for some bipartisan support -- is probably a genuine (if electoral-driven) preference, not one driven by supermajority rules in the Senate and certainly not driven by the peculiarities of the committee process. That's what's been happening.

Back to the larger point: standing committees have serious advantages, which are all about expertise. If Congress is to be a serious player, it needs to be able to compete successfully with interest groups and executive branch agencies, all of which have detailed expertise based on long experience. Members of Congress aren't originally selected for knowing anything about, well, anything. The best way to learn issues thoroughly is through the specialization involved in committees, and the only hope for institutional learning and memory is through the standing committees. Eliminate or downgrade them, and you downgrade the institutional capacity of Congress.

(Am I against all ad hoc committees? No; Tip O'Neill was willing to set one up for Carter, and my rule of thumb is that O'Neill was pretty much always correct on anything about Congressional procedure and politics. But I am convinced it should be rare, and no panacea for the types of troubles the health bill is currently going through).

To go farther gets into the weeds of majoritarian vs. anti-majoritarian Democracy, so I'll save that for another time, as this post is already far too long.

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