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America's unusually democratic democracy


Political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has a good follow-up post to my comments on the unexpectedly decisive roles individual legislators play in the policy process. This, he says, is part of what makes America great.

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, in 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.

You rarely hear senators criticized for not doing more to grab the spotlight, but that's what confuses me here. There appears to be substantial incentives for legislators to develop real expertise on various issues, and consistently flood the zone with compromise proposals and new policy initiatives. But you don't see much of that. For all the attention that the public option commanded, you basically had Rockefeller with a strong public option, Schumer with a weaker one, and Snowe with a trigger. In the past few weeks, Carper brought up the state-based idea, and Schumer (again!) made some modifications on it. Why isn't everyone muscling in for a piece of the action?

Similarly, on revenues, Kerry proposed the excise tax, and Wyden has been big on repealing the employer exemption and replacing it with a standard deduction, but that's been about it for policy entrepreneurism. Given the impact an individual senator can make, you'd think there would be a lot more competition among senators to a) build the sort of reputation that gives their ideas credibility and b) offer up enough big ideas that the legislator gets a real role in the process. Though it could also be the case that legislators are risk averse, and they don't necessarily want to step to the center of these processes. Or maybe I'm missing other factors here. Surely some of the fine folks over at The Monkey Cage have a learned opinion on this ...

Photo credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

By Ezra Klein  |  October 22, 2009; 5:30 PM ET
Categories:  Congress  
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Does number or tenure of staff have anything to do with this?

Posted by: ideallydc | October 22, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

I think the system really does work along the lines of the upper house acting as a cooling process for hot legislation from the lower.

Also it takes much to develop an involved interest in any particular field, and each house has its acknowledged "experts" - you can't just develop ideas on a dime. This is especially so at the Senate level perhaps, which, as said, is less the originating arena and more the finalizing arena.

Especially with some study over the years I've always thought we have a pretty good system of government - it's the corruptions upon that system that cause most of our heartburn I think.

It's not that the system is rotten, or government inept, more that money is rotten and inept, but carries the most weight and and has its way against all reason.

Posted by: rosshunter | October 22, 2009 9:27 PM | Report abuse

How about this? The reason why legislators in other democratic systems more often develop policy expertise, as opposed to the sometimes-buffoonish ignorance of American legislators, is that legislators in other systems actually have a chance of putting their ideas into practice, if their party gains a majority and they become ministers.

US legislators are spoiled by irresponsibility. An individual US representative or senator's political fate is only tenuously linked with that of his party colleagues; plenty of Congressmen win office based on their individual platforms in states which are inclined towards the opposing party. There is no "party platform" in US politics. A US representative or senator can never cause the government to fall by voting against his party's policies. Thus, individual Congressmen can pretty much vote free of political consequences (compared with parliamentary systems).

Is this more democratic? Perhaps. But the twin facts of legislators rarely having a chance to put their policies into practice, and the de-linking of their individual political fates with that of their party, results in Congressmen who vote independently, have little incentive to develop real policy expertise and are highly vulnerable to capture by local, State or special interests.

Posted by: kcrhun | October 22, 2009 10:13 PM | Report abuse

Somebody must be joking to contend Congress is notably "democratic." Special interest groups have far more influence over legislation than ordinary people. whose input is usually nil or nonexistent.

The Senate is an intrinsically undemocratic institution. The idea Alaska or North Dakota should have as much power in the Senate as California or New York makes a mockery of "democracy."

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | October 22, 2009 10:19 PM | Report abuse

So let me get this straight. Our system is democratic for the legislators but not for us. So our senators are free to ignore public opinion (which is consistently liberal on a host of economic issues, including health care) and engage in policy tweaks designed to obscure the fact that we're not changing anything (ie, health insurance exchanges that have never been shown to be effective, public options covering 5% of the populace). Yeah, that's SO much more democratic than parliamentary systems in Europe that run on a party platform and actually enact the stuff they run on, even if they do it in a more "bureaucratic" way.

Posted by: redscott | October 23, 2009 8:25 AM | Report abuse

well if this thread is continuing this morning, let me add that the word "democracy" is a loaded one, since the founders of our system wanted a republican form of representation, not a fully typical democracy, which they equated with mob rule and its contemporary menace, the guillotine.

So they wanted - and created (and this is what we're dealing with) - a system that embraced proportional representation (one man one vote) somewhat equally with non-proportional representation.

Bicameral systems of upper and lower houses seemed to be working well, in Europe and the current states, so as the Union was devised the states became the upper house with one state two votes.

They debated if non-landowners should be given a vote at all, but eventually settled for yes. However, the brake of the states in the senate was intended to destroy the possibiity of "democracy," precisely so that states with large populations couldn't so easily prevail upon the inhabitants of the less populated states. This was a deliberate, and very liberal, altruistic conception.

Personally I think it works well, but you have to take the long view to think this perhaps.

Posted by: rosshunter | October 23, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

As other commentators have pointed out, "democratic" is the wrong word for this property of having individual legislators actively involved in writing legislation.

Or, more precisely, in writing one committee's form of legislation. What Reid is doing right now with health care reform legislation, (i.e., combining the different committees' bills) is every bit as much of a closed and private process as the government drafting a bill in a parliamentary system. And then there are the conference committees to reconcile the House and Senate versions! As a Nebraskan, I think our unicameral state legislature does a better job, simply because there are no conference committees and so the process of writing legislation is more public.

Posted by: adonsig | October 23, 2009 12:25 PM | Report abuse

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