Yes, healthy congressional politics are transactional…and more

United States Capitol building in Washington, DC

Jonathan Rauch has written both an impish and important report for the Brookings Institution, Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money and Back-room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy (2015).

Rauch, like me and many other observers of Congress, is dismayed by its dysfunction. The past two decades have seen multiple government shutdowns. Attempts to reach “grand bargains” on deficit reduction, immigration and other major national issues have failed. Internecine warfare became a regular feature of the national legislature, with members trashing one another publicly. Control of Congress shifted from party to party every few years. The basic machinery of representative government faltered and descended into ugliness and public esteem sunk.

As Rauch sees it, the basic congressional problem is power. It is too dispersed. Congress is a bicameral, majoritarian institution. Passing a law requires a majority in the House and usually a super-majority in the Senate. To get anything done means getting a lot of people to say yes, which they often are not inclined to do. What’s needed are leaders who have sufficient power to assemble majorities by offering rewards and punishments. Ideology, Rauch observes, “is brittle glue.” Politics is transactional: politicians want something for their constituents in return for their votes.

How congressional power came to be dispersed is a long and complicated story. Rauch accurately attributes some of the problems to well-intentioned but misguided reforms. Committee chairmen, for example, are far less powerful than they used to be. Taken too far, the demand for a less hierarchical and more open Congress has made the institution less orderly. Just ask Speaker John Boehner, who regularly has seen coalitions fall apart when members of his own party have withheld their votes. Trent Lott, the former Republican Senate majority leader, summed it up this way:

 Trying to be a leader where you have no sticks and very few carrots is dang near impossible. Members don’t get anything from you and leaders don’t give anything. They don’t feel like you can reward them or punish them.

Rauch’s title argues that it is time to bring back political machines and give elected officials the private space in which they can cut deals. Congress would be less anarchic with leaders who could coordinate its 535 members toward common purpose. It also would be more moderate, Rauch contends, because machine politics tend to be less issue-driven.

There are, of course, factors exogenous to Congress that explain the dysfunction. For example, Frances Lee, professor of political science at the University of Maryland, explains that competitive elections have a down-side: increased partisanship.

The closeness of today’s party competition is decidedly not normal in American politics. In fact, the last three decades have seen the longest period of near parity in party competition for control of national institutions since the Civil War…[T]oday’s political context disincentivizes successful bipartisan negotiation. The permanent campaign and politicians’ continual eye on the next election pervasively discourage efforts to work across party lines.

Rauch recognizes this, and favors freeing up political parties to raise unlimited money. This would strengthen them vis-a-vis the random PACs, Super PACs and other influential entities that are accountable only to their donors. Congress took a step in this direction in December 2014, when it greatly increased the legal limits on contributions to political party conventions. (For details on how much can be contributed to whom, see R. Sam Garrett’s “The State of Campaign Finance Policy: Recent Developments and Issues for Congress.”)

For sure, it expects too much of legislators to ask them to govern selflessly in pursuit of an abstract public good. Congressmen are representatives of particular districts and states, with particular constituents and interests to serve. How can they please their voters if they act only in the grand national interest?

That said, it is not clear whether, say, bringing back earmarks or some other grease for the legislative skids would much improve things. Certainly, it would be a tough sell to the public. Congressmen clearly do not want to feel like eunuchs. They want to wheel and deal and return home with something to show for their efforts. This is why they spend so much time introducing post-office-naming bills and other feel-good legislation.

I recently asked Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., how it is that the Senate Armed Services Committee, which he chairs, has managed to pass a defense bill for 53 consecutive years. He cited three factors:

  1. Defense is a constitutional and existential issue.
  2. Committee members get benefits for their home states from defense bills.
  3. The committee has a tradition of bipartisan operation that nobody wants to break.

Transactional politics are part of the picture, but not all of it. McCain’s answer squares with an article by the Congressional Research Service’s Colleen Shogan on this subject.

The National Defense Authorization Act is a big bill. It sets policy and spending levels for the Pentagon. This year’s legislation authorizes more than $600 billion in spending. To produce it, the Armed Services Committee has a host of practices that are followed year after year. Hearings are held to produce a record, which acts as a basis for drafting the legislation. Staff members share workspace and briefing books. Amendments from committee members are welcomed.

In short, it is a trusting win-win environment that enables the committee to produce a bill that all (or nearly all) committee senators can stand behind. (The committee reported this year’s NDAA by a 22 to 4 vote.)

Does pork get into the NDAA? Certainly—lots of it. But policy also gets made, which is what a representative legislative body is supposed to do.



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