Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

The Senate's problem is not disagreement. It's elections.


Paul Krugman's column today tells the story of the Sejm, the Polish legislative body that ran under the principle of unanimity. As you might have guessed, it didn't work very well, and Poland didn't do very well (though you could point to a lot of reasons Poland didn't do very well), and Krugman uses it to make some smart points about the U.S. Senate.

But there's an important distinction worth drawing here. In the Polish Sejm, you needed full agreement from 100 percent of the members to move forward. That's nuts. But you could certainly imagine agreement from 60 percent of a body's membership. That's higher than 51 percent, to be sure, but not that much higher.

The problem with the Senate is not that you can't get 60 people out of 100 people to agree on something. It's that roughly half the folks will lose any chance at a promotion, and they may even lose their job, if they agree with the other half. Bipartisanship isn't impossible because people disagree on the finer points of American policy, though many of them certainly do. It's impossible because the parties are locked in a zero-sum struggle for control, and you don't gain an advantage if you give the other side a major accomplishment and then tell the American people they really did a good job reaching out to your and your colleagues. That's the equivalent of saying to your employer, "Don't give me a promotion, and in fact, think hard about whether you might want to lay me off next year."

As I've said before, it is very near to impossible to build out an ideological model explaining why Republicans who voted for the deficit-financed Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit would vote against the deficit-neutral health-care reform bill. But it's very easy to build out a model explaining why Republicans would vote for a bill that would help them if it passed and against a bill that would hurt them if it failed. Same goes for Democrats. Good-faith disagreement is not the explanation that best fits the data.

This isn't, importantly, an attack on either party. It's good to have a competitive electoral system! But if we're going to give the minority party a reason to want the majority party to fail at governing the country, we can't also give them the power to make the majority party fail at governing the country. We need a legislative system that works alongside our political system, not one that pretends we have a different, more harmonious political system than we really do.

Photo credit: By Harry Hamburg/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  February 8, 2010; 3:10 PM ET
Categories:  Government  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: On Twitter
Next: Wanted: More money in politics


Ezra - I don't buy the whole "this time it's different" argument. Where were you and your colleagues when the Republicans controlled the Senate, House and Presidency?

Repubs oppose HC reform. Dems supported Iraq invasion and continued war effort. It's all political.

Posted by: mbp3 | February 8, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

"it is very near to impossible to build out an ideological model explaining why Republicans who voted for the deficit-financed Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit would vote against the deficit-neutral health-care reform bill."

1. Because it's *not* deficit neutral, and is arguably worse than the presciption drug benefit.
2. Because it does not address what Republicans perceive as the root causes.
3. Because instead of addressing rising costs observed by nearly all citizens, the bill focuses on universal coverage -- at higher cost to many of the citizens behind the original complaint.
4. Because it includes a mandate.
5. Because it forces the young and healthy to pay disproportionately higher rates in order to subsize older/sicker insurees.
6. Because if you like your current plan, you can't necessarily keep it.

Unless you think that's not "ideological," it certainly wasn't "nearly impossible."

Posted by: cpurick | February 8, 2010 3:28 PM | Report abuse

Ezra : " is very near to impossible to build out an ideological model explaining why Republicans who voted for the deficit-financed Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit would vote against the deficit-neutral health-care reform bill."


Well, the first reason is that the Senate health bill (or any health bill) would require higher taxes on the wealthy. The GOP is ideologically opposed to any taxes, much less higher taxes. Any idiot knows the GOP doesn't care about health care reform, but they consistently work towards lowered taxes.

Another reason is, as you say, they don't want give the Dems an ideological victory. Obviously, health care reform is a long-term Democratic goal the GOP will always resist.

Also, the GOP wants to sabotage gvmt and would be happy to see it collapse in its entirety. They figure with their cultural bias advantage (yes, they have one) they'd be the ones to take full power after any major gvmt collapse. At the very least, a collapse would cause taxation to cease and cause the gvmt to downsize drastically.

Posted by: Lomillialor | February 8, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

We've had elections since the beginning of the Republic. The current gridlock is also an effect of party realignment and greater intraparty agreement. Also there was more of a sense of common purpose in the years during and after WWII that muted some of the disagreements, and that ended at the same time as party realignment. You have to ask WHY elections became (or came to be seen as) a zero-sum game.

Posted by: Mimikatz | February 8, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Finally Ezra diagnoses a real problem in governance. The problem is not the system itself (Senate rules, the eletoral college, state representation); which is in fact the best political system ever created; but rather the unwillingness of legislators to work together due to disincentives to work together.

The fact is that legislators will work together if the policy is very good. That usually requires the victorious political party being very magnanimous in working with the other party. That usually frustrates the wing-nut partisans on either side, but it is the only way to sluff of the bad policy that each side often embarrassingly supports (such as opposition to free trade in the Democratic party and tax cuts cause more revenue dynamic scoring in the Republican Party).

By working together and not rolling the minority party just because the majority party has the numbers, you can get good bipartisan legislation to pass.

Even Ronald Reagan, who had great credibility with conservatives could support tax increases if the policy was right and he got substantial trade-offs in benefit cuts. That is the model that President Obama needs to follow.

He should support the Senate Bill but add robust tort reform to drive down costs. He should pair repeal of the Bush tax cuts for wage-earning families over $250,000 with a cut in the corporate tax rate. He should raise the social security eligibility age while increasing social security taxes.

Posted by: lancediverson | February 8, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

So putting on my management consultant's hat, the next logical question is: why does one party lose its job for working with the other side? Especially given that most Americans express distaste for partisan politics and gridlock? I can think if two reasons:

1. It's an information problem. The public wants bipartisanship, but information on how well the minority party's ideas get incorporated into the majority's bills doesn't filter down to the mass public. As a result, the party in power gets all the credit for successes, even when the minority contributed. You could (potentially) solve this problem without changing institutions. The media needs to do a better job of allocating credit, and the majority party needs to be more gracious in granting credit to the other side's good ideas (which the President is currently doing).

2. It's an elections problem. First, even though the majority of Americans want bipartisan compromise, the ideological subset that votes in primaries does not. The hurdle of winning a primary election forces politicians to cater more toward the uncompromising base just to stay in the game. Second, there are incentives to be obstructionist even in general elections. To the extent that the key to good marketing is differentiation, it's more effective for a politician to draw sharp lines between them and the other side than it is to compete on the more nebulous quality of "effective policy maker."

Posted by: akent07 | February 8, 2010 4:07 PM | Report abuse

Ezra : " is very near to impossible to build out an ideological model explaining why Republicans who voted for the deficit-financed Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit would vote against the deficit-neutral health-care reform bill."

The deficit is much larger now and they don't believe HCR is deficit-neutral.

And that is why HCR is unpopular. People are worried about government spending. Just because you can't pass unpopular legislation, that doesn't mean the system is broken. It's kind of how it's supposed to work.

Posted by: MrDo64 | February 8, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Even if you believe HCR isn't deficit-neutral, the fact of the matter is that every analysis has shown it to be less costly to the deficit than the Medicare PDB. As for the bigger deficit now, the deficit is bigger now because, well, it's supposed to be bigger now. We're in a recession. So that's an argument that the GOP is economically illiterate.

I'm actually kinder to than than you are, but for all that, it would require relatively minor tweaks in revenues and savings to make the bill neutral even in the eyes of its opponents. But none of them have suggested any of those changes.

Good faith just doesn't fit the data here. Same goes for the debt limit. How did that pass with all Republican votes (pretty much) when they were in power, but now it's all Democratic votes? Opinions on the debt can't flip that fast.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | February 8, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

Good analysis of our predicament, Ezra. Although you note that there are important idealogical and policy considerations at play, I think you give them short shrift. There are principled reasons Republican voters would want to punish a Republican Congressman for voting for the Democrats' HCR bill. Obama himself has said that failure of Democrats to pass the bill would make them indistinguishable from Republicans; many Repbulicans feel the reverse is also true for them.

But this analysis only holds for this bill (or ones very much like it). This is the Democrats' bill, not a bipartisan bill. Contrary to earlier assertions you have made, this is neither a modest nor inexpensive bill. A bipartisan bill might have fared better. It remains to be seen, now, whether one can be crafted in the time that remains prior to the mid-term elections.

Posted by: tbass1 | February 8, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Procedurally, it is exactly like the 100% needed in the Sejm at the time. Any one senator can place a hold on moving forward. Look at Shelby and the appointments.

The senate's use of "hold" is no different than the Sejm. And it will lead to the fall of the country, if if it is continued to be allowed politically, instead of procedurally.

Posted by: jc263field | February 8, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

lancediversion, you'd have to be more specific on what "robust tort reform" meant, but I'm very confident that just about any pet Republican project that didn't undermine the rest of the bill and would guarantee 15 Republican votes would be added to the bill in a minute. The problem is, at this point many on the left, myself included, don't think that there's any provision that would actually get Republican votes. The Republicans will negotiate as conservative a bill as possible and then vote against it anyway. That way if it passes they can call it a win for making it more conservative or if it fails they can claim to have killed it.

I have to disagree though that legislators work together if the policy is good. They work together if the politics are good. Invading Iraq was not good policy, but it got plenty of support. There are other areas where one or the other of us would argue that there's good policy that's not attracting enough support from the other side (cap & trade, Bush tax cuts).

As you point out though, it's a problem of incentives: the system we have encourages the minority to derail the majority's agenda and discourages them from giving the majority legislative wins. The procedural hurdles (filibuster, holds, etc.) don't help though.

Posted by: MosBen | February 8, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

"Even if you believe HCR isn't deficit-neutral..."

It boggles the mind that you actually believe this scheme would pay for itself. I'm confident you think it will cost trillions, and that you're simply willing to pay that price. But do us the dignity of not lying -- we're not idiots.

I believe I heard the president say we need this reform because Medicare can't pay for itself. And Social Security's beginning to run into problems paying for itself already, thanks to depressed payroll tax revenues. Those programs have always been destined for insolvency -- and this is how you solve it?

Dems seem to think the federal government is too big to fail. What's more, they seem to think that's some sort of challenge.

As a function of GDP, we are in record debt territory now. We're beginning to surpass WWII levels. As recently as two years ago, even Bush's deficits were only at 1980s levels. But this administration is heading for a trainwreck.

Posted by: cpurick | February 8, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

Most people in office want to be perceived as the good guy, giving the voters their candy, waiting for the next guy to tell them they have to pay for it, with interest.

Posted by: staticvars | February 9, 2010 12:04 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for continuing to report on this issue. Maybe the most important in the country.

Posted by: orteleus | February 9, 2010 12:42 AM | Report abuse

"Even if you believe HCR isn't deficit-neutral, the fact of the matter is that every analysis has shown it to be less costly to the deficit than the Medicare PDB." - Ezra Klein

And yet, the Democratic plan tries to close the hole without doing anything about the actual cost of drugs; in other words, it *increases* the costs associated with that program. That's one of the things that makes no sense at all to those who have actually tried to understand what is going on.

Criticizing the profligacy of the GOP with respect to then Medicare Drug Plan without doing something concrete to reduce its costs --e.g. rescinding the prohibition on negotiating drug prices --is nothing more than political grandstanding. Until they stand up and rescind the prohibition on Medicare drug negotiation, reform supporters will have no more creditablity their than opponents.

Posted by: Athena_news | February 9, 2010 1:22 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company