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
October 22, 2009; 5:30 PM ET
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