Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Re-election Incentive: Democracy in Action

There isn't a better blogger out there, in my view, than Ta-Nehesi Coates, but I'll part ways with him on this one, in which he comments on Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), as seen in Ezra Klein's excellent interview.  Here's TNC:
Loved this piece of rhetoric:
This is my 12th year. If I lose my job over this, then so be it. In that case, I can be doing more productive things. If you're given the opportunity to serve, you better serve like it's your last term every term. It's just the way I look at it. I sleep well at night.
Maybe it's true of Ryan, maybe it's not--I'm counting on some Wisconsin people to fill me in. But it's the kind of attitude a lot of Congressfolk could use.
You know what I want?  I want Members of Congress who want to stay there forever, because they're doing things that keep the folks back home happy with them.  I don't want Members who just want to do what they think is right; I want them to do what they think is right for their constituents. 

Hey, there's a lot of latitude.  Different politicians have different representational relationships with their constituents.  Some promise to do exactly what their constituents say; others promise to be experts, and do things their constituents would do if they, too, were experts.  Some promise just to vote with the party.  All of that is fine; all of that is democracy.  But I want Members of Congress to lose sleep if they think they're doing something that their constituents wouldn't approve of.  I want them to want reelection.  If I was to really pick one thing that might be seriously wrong with the contemporary Congress, it's that the reelection incentive might not be strong enough -- if it was, perhaps Republicans during Bush's second term might have bailed on his unpopular policies.  My guess, however is that the Republicans defeated in 2006 and 2008 (and the Democrats defeated in 1994) are doing just fine for themselves.  Those Republicans may sleep well, but they ran their country into the ditch. 


  1. I want Members of Congress to lose sleep if they think they're doing something that their constituents wouldn't approve of.

    This is textbook populism, isn't it? Are you sure you want to go down this road? Take health care reform, for example. Poll after poll has shown that voters disapprove of the bill--but that they are horribly uninformed about it. Once they are informed about the individual components, they approve. So what is our hypothetical member of congress to do? Vote against it because of bad polling, even though the poll respondents don't have their facts straight? I don't think so.

    This is a representative democracy; our elected leaders are supposed to exercise judgment on their own. Of course public opinion plays a huge part, but at some point, tough decisions have to be made. Decisions that require intense analysis of the available options and their likely effects--an analysis that no ordinary citizen would have the time or inclination to undertake.

    And by the way, the GOP wasn't defeated in 2006 and 2008 because they failed to listen to constituents. They were defeated because they pursued popular policies that turned out to be misguided and caused disastrous effects. (Social security privatization aside, which was both unpopular and misguided.) Surely the two massive tax cuts and unfunded Medicare expansion were popular among constituents; that doesn't mean that passing those laws was the right thing to do for the nation.

  2. You misunderstand my argument. I don't think that pols should put every question up for a simple vote of their constituents (unless they've promised to do so, although I personally wouldn't prefer a pol who promised to do that). What I'm saying is that they should care about reelection, which means doing things that their constituents would ultimately approve of. In some cases, that might mean supporting policies that poll badly now but that the representative is confident would benefit her constituents. In some cases, it might mean something that the rep believes the constituents would support if it were properly explained to them. But whichever way, the representative is supposed to case about constituent reaction, not just about her own personal preferences.

  3. Thanks for the response. I guess my misunderstanding comes from my interpretation of Rep. Ryan's remarks. It seems to me like he is saying, "I will do something unpopular if I believe it will be good for my constituents," not "I will do something unpopular because I like it, regardless of whether it is good for my constituents."

    That is to say, I'm assuming he's not willing to cast a vote that he believes will be bad for his constituents just because he personally thinks it's nifty.

    Maybe that's giving him too much credit!


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