Does America need more political dynamism?

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We have all heard the railings of the presidential aspirants about the federal government: that it’s corrupt; that it’s rigged by the malevolent establishment against the common man; that the economy is faltering because elites and their cronies are hoarding the wealth.

To solve these problems, office-seekers peddle beguiling simplistic solutions like getting big money out of politics, evicting special interests from the temple and returning government to the people. Inspiring as these notions may be, Lee Drutman counsels that we should move beyond such “impractical utopianism” to solutions that accept the “fundamental realities of politics.”

Saying such a thing aloud make Drutman, a senior fellow at New America, a bit of a skunk at the liberal reform party. To be clear, Drutman is very concerned about the corruption of politics by money—he’s the author of a serious book on lobbying. But he wants solutions that embrace the messy realities of politics and governance:

Too often, reform visions treat politicians and organized groups (aka, ‘special interests’) as irredeemably venal and corrupt while simultaneously viewing governance as something perfectible and politics as something solvable — if only it could be taken away from the politicians and the special interests. The vision usually amounts to constraining political behavior through tight rules, or by circumventing politicians and organized groups entirely through some pure form of direct democracy and common sense wisdom.

In other words, it’s normal for people to be motivated by parochial and self-serving desires and reasonable people who share the same goal can disagree completely on how to achieve it.

So what’s the solution? More “political dynamism,” says Drutman in a white paper of that same name. Political dysfunction is driving public dissatisfaction. People are annoyed that government can’t get stuff done. Drutman proposes a slate of reforms that aim to make politics, and Congress in particular, more “fluid and competitive” and for a system that:

[L]everages diversity and creates opportunity for experimentation and change; [one that] expands the combinatorial possibilities of political innovation and deal-making…[and] helps citizens aggregate and realize their interests in the most efficacious ways, rather than simultaneously expecting them to super-engaged and expert while giving them few meaningful choices.

Toward these ends, Drutman advocates policies to:

  1. Diversify the pool of candidates for office by empowering smaller campaign donors and switching America to multimember districts;
  2. Strengthen public interest pressure on Congress by fostering general-interest lobbying groups;
  3. Make Congress less dependent on K Street by increasing the number of legislative branch staff; and
  4. Decentralize power in Congress by re-empowering committees as the source for new policy and reforms.

Much of Drutman’s white paper lays out the arguments for these various proposals. And I should add, he and I are collaborating on a project to strengthen the legislative branch. I will leave it to others to ponder Drutman’s various reforms, and instead will debate my friend on the nature of the problem. Does American national politics need more dynamism?

I’m not so sure. I have not seen evidence that the annual crop of candidates for public office are too few or too conventional in their ideas. But I might simply have missed some research on this topic that proves otherwise.

Part of political dynamism, I would posit, is governance dynamism. That means moving ideas to action, which means contending with problems and allocating government resources to productive ends. Governance dynamism can occur in either the executive branch or the legislative branch—or even elsewhere (see the Federal Reserve’s extraordinary actions in recent years).

So how do Americans feel about the efforts of the national legislature and the executive branch? Do they think it’s a dynamic force that gets things done and does so efficiently? No. The public’s approval rate for Congress and the bureaucracy are at historic lows. The public dislikes seeing so much partisanship and bickering while basic problems (the immigration system, the federal deficit, etc.) go unresolved. People want their government to get stuff done and what they see on the news and the Internet is, as Paul Ryan once put it, chaos. They believe government and politicians waste money sort of senseless, politically driven programs, as depicted in Jonathan Rauch’s classic and still germane “Demosclerosis.”

Presidents frequently take unilateral action. Sometimes their efforts, like President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration, get tied up in court. But that is the exception to the rule. The president’s current ho-hum approval ratings are much higher than Congress’ and a bit higher than the executive branch bureaucracy’s, both suggesting the public desires action, not paralysis.

Which brings us to the matter of Congress. Public perceptions aside, is our legislature, in fact, a stolid governance body? Well, yes and no. In short, the House is very dynamic; the Senate…not so much.

The House of Representatives is a veritable cauldron of reform ideas, whether it is regulatory budgeting, budget process reform, reforming the federal civil service or abolishing Obamacare. Some of these bills are messaging bills that the House knows will never become law; others are Post Office naming bills and other feel-good non-policy. However, much lower chamber legislation is real policy designed to address real problems. Since January 2014, 5,100 House bills have been introduced (not counting postal-naming bills and resolutions). More than 400 of these bills have passed the House. Only 80 became law. Table 1 shows is that the Senate is the great choke-point for legislation. The Senate moved only one-fifth of the House bills it received.

Table 1: U.S. House bills, Jan. 1, 2014 to May 1, 2016

Introduced 5,123
Passed by House 431
Passed by Senate 88
Signed by president 80

Source: Congress.gov. Data exclude House resolutions and post office naming bills.

Senators, meanwhile have introduced 2,883 bills during the current Congress, about 56 percent of the House total. The chamber has passed 120 of these bills, or a little more than a quarter. While making laws is not a good metric of general congressional productivity, it is a solid measure of the legislature’s ability to make new policies and abolish old and failed ones.

That the Senate is a dilatory body is not news. Its short legislative schedule and hoary chamber rules make for plodding policymaking, and empower any senator to hinder action (e.g., wanton amending and holds). This modus operandi may be traditional, but in the 21st century, it is incongruous and self-defeating, as Christopher Demuth has explained. The Senate needs to think seriously about ways to improve its workings, both to appease a very dissatisfied government and to stop the executive branch from running circles around it.

Lee Drutman may be right—more political dynamism may be what we need. But unless it is accompanied by much more governance dynamism, particularly by the First Branch of government, our discontent won’t abate.

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