Thursday, October 22, 2009


Ezra Klein has a fun, short, post in which he observes that individual Members of Congress actually matter quite a bit when it comes to writing laws:

In theory, that's obvious. Bills don't come from the Bill Fairy. They come from senators and congressmen. But watching it up close is really striking. Kent Conrad spends a weekend chatting with his staff and suddenly co-ops are on the agenda. John Kerry's staff finds something like the excise tax proposal in an old document from 1994 and suddenly that's how the Senate Finance Committee is funding health-care reform...

This is how bills get made. Congressmen don't simply act as vessels for existing ideas that have a broad level of elite consensus. Fairly frequently, they -- or their staffs, or their lobbyist contacts, or their policy advisers -- simply have a new idea, and within a week or two, that idea becomes central to the process.
Absolutely correct -- except for the "obvious" part. It's not obvious at all; it's actually highly unusual, by world standards. Our legislature (both Houses!) is "transformative," but mostly what you see in the world are legislatures that have only a few main active functions: electing the government, ratifying what the government does, and (if things go wrong) kicking out the government. Individual members of those legislatures don't write laws -- they generally don't draft amendments, or negotiate the fine points. Instead, members of the government (who are, most systems, technically members of parliament but function more or less similarly to our Department Secretaries) decide on a policy, and then have the bureaucrats write the laws to enact those policies. Negotiations that take place in such systems tend to be directly between group elites and the government. They do not involve individual members of the legislature.

The virtues of the systems that the rest of the world have is that they tend to be more systematic and more professional. You wouldn't get something like Kent Conrad misreading a book and deciding that French health care is a perfect example of the value of co-ops, or whatever it was he thought he understood, and then all of a sudden everyone has to deal with that.

The virtues of the American system are that it tends to be far more open and decentralized, and it is far less bureaucratic. A lot of people are close enough or can get close enough to one of the 535 Members of Congress that they can have some input (well, actually, while all 100 Senators are relevant and close to equal, far fewer Members of the House are potential authors of any particular bill, with majority party status and committee position both large factors). In my view, that makes it more democratic.

The other major issue raised is majoritarianism. The type of system in which Conrad, Kerry, Olympia Snowe, Max Baucus, Ron Wyden, Henry Waxman, and perhaps dozens of other Members of Congress can all write bits of the health care bill tends to be strongly anti-majoritarian, whereas the way most other democracies do things tends to be strongly majoritarian. Each has its supporters (and perhaps different systems are better suited for different polities). I'll consistently take an anti-majoritarian position, so I'm pretty happy with what Ezra notices. In my view, a transformative Congress with individual Members of Congress having real independent ability to affect policy is one of the hallmarks of American democracy, one of the things that makes the U.S. "really" democratic.

(Update: I forgot to mention one excellent study of which Members of Congress have mattered, and how -- David Mayhew's America's Congress: Actions in the Public Sphere, James Madison through Newt Gingrich).


  1. You misunderstand the roles of individual legislators in most parliamentary systems. Your article is a typically American, and quite ignorant, caricature. First, legislatice committees are quite common. The difference is that a single member, for various reasons, rarely has the excessive power that some US Senators have accumulated. Second, precisely the fact that government members are recruited from parliament, and there usually are many of them (ministers, secretary of state, undersecretary...), guarantees that MPs are not easily overpowered by the bureaucracy. I don't know what you mean by saying that government members function "more or less like department secretaries". As members of parliament, they are up for reelection and accountable to the voters in a way that appointed US government posts are not.

    You can certainly identify flaws in that system but you should at least try to accurately portray it before claiming American superiority.

  2. Piglet,

    Thanks for the comment. Lots of substance here, and I'll try to get to it.

    First, I don't think I'm claiming American superiority. I do prefer the anti-majoritarianism that the US government has, but other than that, I'm mostly saying that it's really pretty different.

    Second, I plead guilty to oversimplifying, and I certainly am not an expert in world legislatures, although I think the general idea of what I was saying is pretty safe. I tried to put in enough "mosts" and "tends"...I think it's safe to say that the US is unusual on this dimension.

    Third, the idea is that *all* US Senators, not just some, have such powers, and that many Members of the House have quite a bit of ability to transform legislation.

    Fourth, I'm not saying that the bureaucracy is all-powerful everywhere but the US, only that the bureaucracy in most democracies tends to be stronger vs. the politicians than in the US.

    Last thing...yes, of course cabinet ministers are directly responsible to the electorate in ways that US cabinet secretaries are not. But the types of accountability to the voters are so different across different types of systems (first-past-the-post vs. PR, various types of party systems, etc.) that it's hard to compare.

  3. "it's hard to compare" - well that's what you are doing. So try to do it right.

    "all US senators, not just some, have such powers" - not sure what you mean by "such powers". The power to introduce legislation? They have that in parliamentary systems too. I'm not an "expert in world legislature" either but e.g. in Germany, MPs can and do introduce legislation. They will normally not succeed if the governing majority doesn't support it. What is different in the US is that individual senators are more than in most countries I know of prepared to let their own reelection strategy trump ANY other consideration and thus dictate national policy. There may be a more benign way of describing this behavior but to say it is a hallmark of democracy is more than a stretch.

    In addition, it is not the case that all senators have the same power. Some senators and some representatives have accumulated a power base as committee chairmen that is hard to justify as democratic. The handful of congress members who have the real power over national health care reform, etc., are accountable only to a tiny fraction of the people. What is democratic about that?

  4. Professor Bernstein,

    Couldn't your description of the parliamentary process of law-making be analogizing to American law-making?

    That is, legislators decide on policy and then delegate broad rule-making authority to regulatory agencies. These agencies, which aren't even part of the same branch of government, effectively operate as law-makers within their designated sphere.

    Also, in your last paragraph, you describe how minority positions find their way into U.S. law, but isn't majority rule an essential component of most conceptions of democray?

  5. That is, "be analogized," sorry.

  6. Anonymous,

    You're right that American regulatory agencies get into the game down the line, after legislation passes, and do in fact "effectively operate as law-makers within their designated sphere." What's unusual about the U.S. system is (1) how many different sets of players there are in the actual law-making process, and (2) how many other "effectively operate as law-makers" there are in addition to "real" law-making: not just agencies issuing regulations, but also presidents issuing executive orders, and courts changing laws through interpretation (and, to a lesser extent, knocking things out that are unconstitutional).

    On majority rule...for now, I'll just say that there are different views about democracy and majority rule. I've been intending to write a bit about the filibuster & democracy, but haven't got to it yet. As I said, I'm not a fan of majoritarian democracy, but I think defending that position in comments is probably not the best idea.


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