Monday, September 6, 2010

Very Interesting, But...

I promised more about the APSA filibuster panel, which featured two serious Congressional scholars, (liberal columnist/blogger/MSNBC constant presence) Ezra Klein, and (Heritage Foundationer/Red State blogger) Brian Darling, along with filibuster expert Greg Koger as the moderator.  I thought it was a great idea for a panel, but in the execution it was, I thought, somewhat disappointing.  That's because instead of deploying any of the available strong arguments for the filibuster, Darling spent most of his time on nonsense: a bunch of partisan rhetoric about big bills being bad, and misguided claims about states.

I'll put this as bluntly as I can: states, as states, do not have interests.  That is, the people who live in states certainly have interests, and state governments have interests, but Alabama and New York and Nevada do not have interests apart from the interests of the people who live there and their governments.  They just don't, and arguments that depend on state interests are therefore bound to be wrong. 

Does this mean that federalism is a bad thing?  Not at all.  First, it may be practically the case that people's interests, especially minority interests, are best served by a system that is organized by states -- by intermediate-level jurisdictions, which tend (at least to some extent) to group together people with similar interests, which will tend to encourage relatively small interests to have representation in Congress.  So even though not everyone in Maine is involved in the lobster industry, and not everyone involved in lobsters lives in Maine, it's not so bad that the lobster interest gets represented by Maine's congressional delegation.  To the extent that this actually works, I generally think that the institutional design of the Senate, which leads to each Senator retaining individual influence, is an excellent feature of the American Constitution.   Nothing about that argument, however, supports the massive malapportionment of the actual U.S. Senate.  Second, there are of plenty of arguments available in support of  decentralized governance: on Madisonian anti-majoritarian grounds; on arguments of citizen efficacy; and/or based on claims of efficiency; without having to rely on ascribing mythical interests to the states.  Of course, there are also counter-arguments to each of these, but they are arguments based on substance, not myth.

At any rate, there are no state interests.  The interests of people who live in states, yes, but generally those interests have nothing to do with which side of a state line they happen to fall in. The interests of state governments, yes (and do conservatives really think that those governments, which after all are, uh, governments, deserve a privileged role in the political system?) .  But interests of states as states?  Nope.


  1. JB, Can you enlighten us non-political-scientists about how a screeching ideologue like this Darling guy gets on a panel at a political scientists' convention? His post rips into Ezra Klein for saying this: "I think our veneration for the Founders is something that occasionally perplexes me." Darling calls this an "outrageous" statement that "trashes" and "maligns" the Founders. Seriously? Being perplexed about something? "Outrageous"? People debating political-science issues at a meeting of political scientists can't be even that mildly critical? Does this guy know anything about academia or how it works?

    As to states, I agree with your point, but perhaps in some further post you could elaborate on this a little further. I'm aware that the rhetoric on the right talks up states as "political communities" whose organic and mystical essence has to be protected, which of course includes letting them discriminate against minorities and be wildly over-represented in the central government. Me, I always thought it was striking how many of America's organic political communities just happen to be perfect rectangles. But OK, let's say that by virtue of whatever history, these "communities" have come into being. If Darling et. al. said that states as political communities have interests that are not identical with the interests of the people in them, how would you answer that?

  2. Of course states-as-such have interests! Haven't you ever noticed how much more residents of New York City have in common with their brethren upstate than with their co-workers in Jersey City or Stamford?

  3. This raises a question. Do 'states' in the international-relations sense have interests, or are those also a nullity?

    Or is that question, in a way, the basis of your point? 'State interest' is fundamentally about international relations, and no matter what they say down South when romantic notions and that third bourbon get going, American states' interests were and are subsumed in the 'state interest' of the Union.

  4. So, is the preservation of the Senate as it is (let alone the filibuster) now considered an ideologically conservative viewpoint, while reform is now ideologically liberal?

    Or else, why would this forum include such highly visible personalities, with one who advocates reform and one who doesn't, while they both simultaneously represent the "liberal" and "conservative" sides of punditry, respectively?

    Obviously, I wasn't at the panel, but your account makes it seem like they want this to be an ideological "left vs. right" issue, when it's clearly just a matter of who's in the majority versus who's in the minority. If the sides were flipped, Ezra would be grasping for liberal arguments to keep the filibuster in place, and Darling would be arguing to return the Senate to the way the founders intended, or something like that.

  5. Jeff and Thomas,

    I don't want to speak for anyone, but generally anyone organizing a roundtable, like this one, can select who they want, and I think the idea behind this was an interesting one -- presumably, to hear from those who are engaged in the process. And, yes, the panelists did note that people tend to support the arguments that help their positions, but I'm not sure that's a bad thing as long as they are arguing reasonable points.

  6. Thanks Jon, and on second thought, looking at the postings on Madison again, it seems like Brian Darling was the only one trying to frame it ideologically. His post was the only one that included language like how Ezra Klein's "radical assertions" should "worry conservatives," or the "Progressives' disdain for our Founding Fathers," etc.

  7. I can speak to the rationale of the panel organizer because, well, I organized the panel. I was looking for someone to "balance" Ezra Klein's pro-Senate reform position; currently this is a "liberal" position but, as noted on the panel, positions on Senate reform tend to switch with the gavel.

    For a variety of reasons, the number of conservatives blogging in defense of the status quo in the Senate is somewhat limited. Darling is an exception, and his experience as a Senate staffer + close proximity to current Republican views suggested he would fairly and forcefully represent the views of current Republicans. I am thinking, in particular, of an exchange I had with Sen. Pat Roberts at a Rules Committee hearing in July, when Roberts defended recent GOP obstruction as (in part) a response to Democratic efforts to foreclose amending opportunities by "filling the amendment tree." An ally who is formally unaffiliated with the Senate GOP could explain such complaints in detail, and use them to justify the status quo.

    Now, if I had been assigned Mr. Darling's role, I would have focused my case on arguments more likely to appeal to the panel's academic audience, who are savvy enough to scoff at proposals like requiring an hour of debate per page of each and every bill. Instead, Mr. Darling presented a broader review of conservative reform proposals. I found it interesting to know what's being discussed even if I don't take some of it seriously. In academia, as in the Senate, there is some value to hearing and debating alternative viewpoints.

    Still not convinced? Then take the J.S. Mill view: there is great value in the opportunity to hear and confront opposing viewpoints. This was a nationally (well, C-SPAN2) televised panel with 2 academics, one left-of-center pro-reform journalist, and one conservative defender of the status quo. Compared to a softball interview with Sean Hannity, that hardly counts as free advertising for Mr. Darling's proposals. Darling got a chance to make his points, but also had to defend them to a skeptical panel & audience.

  8. If what we know about survey research is any guide, Greg, you are uniquely unable to speak to the rationale of the panel organizer. Can we really ask you why you did what you did? No.

    I think we need to collect data on your state of mind at various times, and correlate this with your choice of breakfast cereal that day. Methinks Cap'n Crunch is to blame.

  9. Jonathan,
    I would be interested to know your views on the "available strong arguments for the filibuster." The ones I ignored. I thought I put forth some strong arguments in favor of retaining the current rules of the Senate allowing unlimited debate (under the constrict of the rules) and the freedom to offer amendments. These are two of the most important features of the United States Senate over our history.
    I was clear in my criticism of both Republicans and Democrats attempts to curtail the rule that allows the filibuster. For example, I stated that I was opposed to Republican efforts in 2005 to implement the so called "Constitutional Option" as a means to rid the Senate of filibusters of nominations. Proponents of this argument wanted to use a precedent to nullify the filibuster with a simple majority vote (in one scenario that was presented). As a matter of fact, I was excluded from one conservative coalition on judicial nominees for my outspoken opposition to this effort.
    I do agree with Gregory Koger that my idea of an hour of debate per page of bills was laughable (and the audience did laugh at this proposal). My other ideas to curtail the abuse of "filling the amendment tree" is something that has merit. What is wrong with my idea of creating points of order against bills that have not been available to the public for 72 hours or that have no Congressional Budget Office (CBO) score?
    I don't believe it to be nonsense to argue that Members of Congress should read bills before they vote. It is common sense to me. As Ezra stated, he read ObamaCare. I read ObamaCare. Members should read bills before they vote.
    It is a real problem that Congress is passing bills that are too large to understand. The Financial Services Reform bill is an excellent example. Many members still don't understand the ramifications of many provisions in the bill because it was too complex and contained many confusing provisions. Simple legislation and an incremental approach to legislating would be far better than what we have today.
    As for the idea that "there are no state interests," I would disagree. People have politically organized in different geographical areas and are represented in those areas by state, local and federal officials. Within these states, people have Governors, state legislatures and state judicial systems that bind together people in an organized political community living under an elected government. A resident of a state has a distinct political tie to that area and to toss that aside because of socio economic or other concerns would ignore the history of differing jurisdictions. It would also toss aside the idea of federalism.
    I am a practitioner in the field of the federal legislature. I worked for the Senate Judiciary Committee and for 4 United States Senators. I feel that I had a perspective for that panel of somebody who has had to confront the idea of whether or not I would recommend my boss support the filibuster of legislation and how to deal with the complex rules governing the Senate.
    Thanks. I look forward to your response.

  10. Brian,

    Welcome to Plain Blog!

    A few things...I was a bit harsh above; it's not so much that I think you didn't include some of the strong arguments, but that the rest of the junk you tossed in served, at least in my view, to undermine the good arguments. And yes, I think that "read the bill", and repealing the 17th amdt, are junk.

    To me, the strongest arguments for current rules are (1) a conservative argument for being careful with rules changes, and (2) the general case against simple majoritarianism. If you're interested, see my series over at Ezra Klein's place from back a few months. (See also Greg Koger's piece at the Monkey Cage, back in the fall I think).

    Links here:

    The rest...I'm all for federalism on Madisonian grounds (checks & balances, lower stakes of any particular election), and I'm open to it on pragmatic grounds (it's possible that some things are most efficiently decided at state & local levels). All that stands without state interests. Oh, and I disagree with those who think that the 17th Amdt. changed anything wrt federalism.

    On big bills: All of your proposals in that area come down, as far as I can see, to just preferring smaller government. That's of course a legit political position, but it's not an argument about best democratic practices, at least not in my view: I don't think Senate rules should be biased for or against passing things. Beyond that, I think it's silly to argue that reading bills is the best way for Members to know what they're voting on.



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