Monthly Archives: January 2009

On Repealing the Law of Gravity

This analysis by the Associated Press points out the difficulties associated with living up to President Obama’s pledge that the stimulus bill will be earmark free. The lede:

President Barack Obama’s ban on earmarks in the $825 billion economic stimulus bill doesn’t mean interest groups, lobbyists and lawmakers won’t be able to funnel money to pet projects.

They’re just working around it — and perhaps inadvertently making the process more secretive.

This should come as a surprise to few political scientists. The idea that legislators or presidents could completely eschew political criteria in making spending choices is almost as plausible as the thought that Congress could pass a law directing a river to flow uphill.

Although earmarking, the practice of placing explicit spending instructions in bills (often without much notice or debate), has received enormous attention, political scientists have long understood that such provisions represent but a minor part of congressional influence over spending decisions. As Doug Arnold demonstrated in Congress and Bureaucracy, congressional influence is just as likely to come from two different sources. The first is the spending formulas that are written into legislation. While such formulas may appear neutral on their face, they are carefully crafted to direct spending in ways to maximize political benefits. The second is the inherent desire of bureaucrats to please those legislators who control the purse strings. Therefore, even if spending decisions are formally delegated to agencies, political considerations may still be very important in how the money is spent.

So banning or limiting earmarks can only result in a minor redirection in the river’s course. It cannot stop the water. Moreover as the AP piece points out, shifting spending decisions from earmarks to formulas or bureaucrats (or mayors or governors) may lessen transparency and accountability.

I have little doubt that earmarking has led both to corruption and the undue influence of some groups. But it has struck me that banning the practice is a cure worse than the disease.

I Heart NY Politics

I thought that the l’affaire Blagojevich was the best argument for my belief that Senate vacancies should be filled only by special election. But witnessing what has transpired with Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat, I have changed my mind — New York, not Illinois, should be Exhibit A.

As illustrated by Governor Rod, any institution designed by humans can be corrupted by corrupt individuals. But the process that let to Kirsten Gillibrand’s appointment shows that gubernatorial Senate appointments are a bad idea even when otherwise decent and well-meaning people are involved.

I have no particular beef with Senator-appoint Gillibrand. By all accounts, she is a talented up-and-comer. Her centrism will probably be a boost both to New York and to the Democratic ticket in 2010. But the average New Yorker certainly knows far less about her than they do about Caroline Kennedy, Carolyn Maloney, Andrew Cuomo, or any of the other leading contenders.

Although I never thought it was a good idea to appoint Kennedy to the seat, there is something terribly unseemly about the insinuations and innuendo that are now flying back and forth between her people and Patterson’s people. Whether she had a nanny or tax problem, wouldn’t it have been better to have it in the open before a voting public rather than have David Patterson be the judge and jury about whether it disqualified her from office?

It will be interesting to see whether Carolyn McCarthy carries through with her threat to challenge Gillibrand in the Democratic primary over her support for gun rights. Based on DW-NOMINATE scores, Gillibrand is the most conservative Democrat in the NY delgation while McCarthy is 4th most (of 23). So I suspect guns is one of only a handful of issues that divide them. It is not in the Democratic Party’s best interest to have a contested primary focused exclusively on gun control.

My Inauguration Speech

Note: Yesterday I presided over Princeton’s celebration of the Inaugural. Below are my opening rermarks.

In less than one hour, Barack Hussein Obama will be inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States. But to call this moment historic is the worst kind of understatement.

After all in 220 years under our constitution, we have held only 65 inaugurations of 42 different men. Each of these men in their own ways under different circumstances changed the destiny of our nation for both good and for ill. So any inauguration is a historical moment.

In historical terms, this inauguration does indeed transcend almost all others.

First, the ascension of Barack Obama is a powerful symbol of opportunity and racial progress, not only in the United States but throughout the world. That a member of a formerly oppressed racial minority obtained the office of chief executive in a democratic election is not just a first in our history, but in Human history. Of course, it does not mean the end of the American Dilemma, but it is one of the great milestones of progress to date.

But this inauguration is also among the most important for much more somber reasons, for Barack Obama will inherit the leadership of a government and nation that:

· Is engaged in two wars

· Requires great vigilance about terrorism and security

· Is entering what is perhaps the economic recession in decades

· Faces a near collapse of its financial system

· Has witnessed many citizens struggle to keep their homes in the face of a collapse in the real estate market

Moreover, the country faces short and long term problems in the areas:

· Social security

· Education

· Medicare

· Health costs and coverage

· Energy dependence and climate change

As pressing as these issues are, President Obama will not have the luxury of turning inward. As a world leader, he faces

· A tenuous cease fire after another war in the Middle East

· The very real threat of the expansion of the nuclear club

at a time when American prestige has ebbed.

Of course, other presidents faced grave challenges as well:

President Washington governed an infant nation under a new constitution that easily could have failed due to foreign intervention or the internal squabbling of the states.

President Lincoln took the mantle of a country on the brink of Civil War and preserved the union only by fighting and winning it.

And of course, President Franklin Roosevelt inherited the worst economy in American history and was ultimately drawn into the cauldron of world war.

Each of these presidencies offers insights and wisdom from which President Obama may draw: lessons about hard choices, lessons about sacrifice, lessons about the intertwining of principle and politics.

But the most important lessens may be the humbling ones, the lesson that problems of such magnitude do not magically disappear in a year or two, and the lesson that success is not preordained. After all, for every Lincoln, there was a Buchanan and for every Roosevelt there was a Hoover: otherwise decent and capable men who faced similar circumstances yet failed to resolve the crises the nation faced.

So given this backdrop, today is a day of historic hope. Regardless of the principals, partisanship, and ideologies that divide us as Americans, it is day in which we as Americans place our trust in a new president and pray that he may embark on a historical presidency of progress and renewal.

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Brookings Report on the 110th Congress

Brookings has released a report written by Sarah Binder, Thomas Mann, Norman Ornstein and Molly Reynolds that reviews the performance of the 110th Congress and compares it to recent Republican-led congresses. To compare apples to apples, much of the report concentrates on the performance of the 110th compared to the 104th as both terms mark the ascendancy of a new partisan majority and the establishment of divided government.

The report is negative for the most part. Many of the positives of the 110th are faint praise comparisons with the era of Republican control.

The highlights after the jump.

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Fastest Veto in History?

It was reported yesterday that President-elect Obama told a closed-door meeting of senators that he would veto any resolution to restrict the second TARP tranch of $350 billion. Because Congress has fifteen days from Monday to pass the resolution and the president has 10 days to veto it, any such showdown would occur no later than the president’s first two weeks in office. But because of the urgency involved, it could come as early as inauguration day.

That got me, the author of a recent paper on the history of the veto, wondering whether it would be the earliest veto in any president’s first term. As I suspected even before cracking the books, the current record holder is Gerald Ford who vetoed legislstion to “reclassify positions of deputy marshals” on day 4 of his adminstration. But, as they would say in track and field, that record is “wind-aided.” Similarly, Lyndon Johnson vetoed amendments to a tariff act on day 37. Among first term elected presidents, the mark is day 36 by U.S. Grant. This one also deserves an asterick because it was a pocket veto after one of the short March legislative sessions that were held prior to the constitutional amendment moving inauguration from March to January.

So I declare that the modern record is held by Obama’s idol FDR who vetoed amendments to the Federal Farm Loan Act after just 103 days. So Obama would absolutely smash this mark unless one side blinks (which alas I predict will be the case).

Here is how all the other presidents since 1900 stack up. The topics of some of the vetoed legislation are downright quaint.

President Entered Office First Veto Day in Office Topic
Bush II 1/20/2001 7/19/2006 2007 Restrictions on Stem Cell Funding
Clinton 1/20/1993 6/7/1993 139 FY 1995 Supplemental
Bush I 1/20/1989 7/1/1989 163 Export of technology for FS-X aircraft
Reagan 1/20/1981 11/23/1981 308 Continuing appropriation for FY 1982
Carter 1/20/1977 11/5/1977 290 Authorization for Energy Research Development Admin
Ford 8/9/1974 8/12/1974 4 Reclassify positions of deputy Marshals
Nixon 1/20/1969 1/26/1970 372 Labor/HEW Appropriations
Johnson 11/24/1963 12/30/1963 37 Amend Tariff Act of 1930
Kennedy 1/20/1961 5/26/1961 127 Relief of William Joseph Vincent
Eisenhower 1/20/1953 6/15/1953 147 Relief of Helmuth Wolf Gruhl
Truman 4/12/1945 7/17/1945 97 Amend Selective Training and Service Act
F. Roosevelt 3/4/1933 6/15/1933 104 Amend Federal Farm Loan Act
Hoover 3/4/1929 4/21/1930 414 Coin 50-cent pieces commemorating Gadsden Purchase
Coolidge 8/2/1923 5/3/1924 276 Omnibus pension bill
Harding 3/4/1921 12/20/1921 292 Codify, Amend, and Revise Laws related to Judiciary
Wilson 3/4/1913 10/22/1913 233 Reinstate Adolph Unger at West Point
Taft 3/4/1909 3/28/1910 390 Amend military record of Aaron Cornish
T. Roosevelt 9/14/1901 3/11/1902 179 Remove Desertion charge from John Glass
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Doesn’t He Also Need a Czar Czar?

President-elect Barack Obama is in the process of naming more czars than a Russian history text. He has named a climate czar, a performance czar, a bailout czar, and a Middle East policy czar. He has plans for a technology czar, a car czar, an urban policy czar, and the list keeps growing. Presidents appoint czars to coordinate different agencies working in similar areas and give symbolic importance to issues on the president’s agenda. While czars are often appointed with great promise and fanfare, they rarely live up to their promise.

One problem with czars is that they lack any formal authority. They do not control budgets, select personnel, or promulgate regulations. Rather, they have to ask other senior government officials to do those things. These other officials are often Senate-confirmed appointees with powerful patrons in Congress and national reputations. Senior presidential appointments have the legal authority to direct thousands of employees and set policy in their agencies. They rarely have to listen to anyone short of the president or key chairpersons in Congress. This was part of the reason why Congress and the president decided to create a new Department of Homeland Security in 2002 to replace the homeland security czar created by the president in the aftermath of 9/11.

The primary power of czars is their proximity to the president. Theoretically, these officials speak for the president and powerful government officials must come in line or suffer the wrath of the president. In practice, access to the president is scarce and czars without access are officials without power. A former Reagan Treasury Secretary once told a class I taught that he never had a conversation with the president about what Reagan wanted him to do as Treasury Secretary. If the Treasury Secretary cannot get access to the president, you can imagine how hard it will be for the performance czar or the technology czar. And, the more czars the president creates, the less power any one of them is likely to have.

Will Obama’s czars suffer this same fate? Even if they have consistent access to and support from the president, their very existence makes it hard to keep and motivate good people below them. Czars in the White House effectively make cabinet secretaries middle managers. It is hard for the president to get the captains of industry, academia, and government to serve and stay loyal the president’s program if they are repeatedly overruled by White House czars. These officials agree to serve because they want to have influence over important policies and problems. How long would Hillary Clinton serve if she had a “foreign policy czar” over her who held the real power? How hard would her team work if they repeatedly lost out in bureaucratic turf fights arbitrated by this czar? How long would they hold off making their grievances public? What is true in foreign policy is true in climate policy, government management, urban policy, and technology policy.

The president-elect has reportedly been reading through various histories in preparation for his tenure as president. He would do well to study the histories of past czars in consumer affairs, drug policy, or intelligence before creating any others. If he reads these histories so he might decide to limit the number of czars and write a more successful history for his own administration.

Editor’s Note: David Lewis, Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University, has generously accepted my invitation to be my first guest blogger.

Senate Retirements

These are indeed gloomy days for the Republican Party. Just two months after a disastrous election, ten percent of their Senate contingency is calling it quits for 2010 (twenty percent of those up for reelection). Those retiring are Kit Bond (MO), Sam Brownback (KS), Mel Martinez (FL), and George Voinovich (OH). So far the only Democratic “retirement” is that of seat warmer Ted Kauffman who plans to make way for Biden fils.

What is perhaps more troubling for the party is the difficulty the party will have in retaining all but the Kansas seat. Obama won Florida and Ohio and barely lost in Missouri. But the longer term damage may be even greater. All of the retirements are members from the most moderate half of the Republican party (Brownback is indeed socially conservative, but significantly more moderate on other issues). Thus, these retirements will further erode moderate wing of the Republican party and further polarize the Senate.

Update: Chris Bowers makes the point that the four retiring senators may be more likely to support President Obama’s economic iniatives than the non-retiring senators. He bases this prediction in part on behavior of retirees on the TARP and Auto Bailout votes. I also found evidence for such an effect here and here.

I Request Permission to Revise and Extend My Remarks

My post yesterday on the Democratic leadership’s reform of the motion to recommit turns out to be somewhat misleading, albeit in a way consistent with my original argument. The change that the House adopted yesterday is somewhat more subtle than the one suggested by my post (my fault for not reading the proposed rules changes that were posted on the House Rules Committee website).

The actual rule change eliminated the opportunity for the minority to make a motion to recommit (MTR) a bill with amendments to committee with instructions to report promptly. The right of the minority to instruct the committee to report forthwith was retained. The difference is that the promptly instruction removes the bill from the floor for committee consideration quite possibly permanently (and therefore kills the bill) while the forthwith instruction keeps the bill on the floor where the amended proposal is then voted on for final passage immediately.

The Democratic leadership argued that this change was necessary because the promptly MTRs were killing legislation not only because of the delays caused by pulling the bill from the floor but also because committees often did not want to report the amended legislation. Moreover, they argued that many such MTRs were poorly drafted and/or were simply symbolic campaign fodder.

Nevertheless, many of my reservations about the rules change remain. If as the Democratic leadership claims that the promptly MTRs are an effective tool of the minority, the reform still circumscribes the role of Republicans and moderate Democrats in the legislative process. The distinction that the Democratic leadership made about constructive and obstructive roles in the legislative process is opaque if not inconsistent. The threat to kill a bill is about the greatest negotiating leverage a minority can have to make constructive changes to legislation. If too many bills were killed by promptly MTRs, perhaps it is because the Democratic leadership failed to recognize and accept that leverage.

I also have questions as to whether the reform will have its intended effect. First, the Democratic leaders have other tools at their disposal to mitigate the effects of MTRs to report back promptly. As Jason Roberts points out in the piece I linked to, an MTR is subject to amendment. It seems that all the Democratic leadership needed to do was propose an amendment to the MTR striking “promptly” and inserting “forthwith.” If their protests about the nature of the Republican chicanery are true, such an amendment would pass. Second, forthwith MTRs can probably kill just as many bills. If the problem with promptly MTRs is that committees will not want to report the amended bill, will not it also be the case that the leadership will want to pull many of the successful forthwith MTRs from the floor?

Ultimately, my bottom line is the same. The solution to excessive partisanship in the House is not to tolerate increased concentration of authority within the majority party leadership.

P.S. Special thanks to Keith Krehbiel for helping me navigating the parliamentary thicket.

A Not-So Post-Partisan House

When the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives, they were criticized by many political scientists including Barbara Sinclair, Thomas Mann, and Norman Ornstein for attempting to completely shut the Democratic minority out of the legislative process. While many Democrats (including the President) have expressed a desire to be more engaging with the minority party, Politico reports that Democratic leaders are planning to strip the minority party of an obscure, yet important prerogative: the right to offer a motion to recommit legislation to its originating committee with instructions to amend the legislation and report it immediately back to the House for final consideration.

Although it rarely gets the attention that the sexier legislative procedures like the filibuster, the hold, or Calendar Wednesday, the motion to recommit (MTR) is provides an important opportunity for the minority party to participate meaningfully in the legislative process. Essentially, when a bill is passed, any opponent may make a motion to send the bill back to committee with some suggested amendments. But because the language of the motion may require the committee “to report forthwith,” the MTR is essentially an opportunity for the minority to offer substantive amendments (but ones that may be again amended by the majority). So even if the Rule Committee doesn’t allow it to offer any formal amendments to the legislation, the minority will still have an opportunity to at least force a vote on one of its amendments, presumably one with the greatest importance and/or chance of peeling off enough moderate majority-party voters for passage. Even though few MTRs pass, the threat that they might pass or at least force some unpopular votes generates some leverage for the views of the minority party. As the Politico article points out, it was the threat of an embarrassing vote on an MTR that pressured the Democratic majority to vote to suspend the moratorium on offshore oil drilling.

It is also important to note that the MTR does not just protect the minority party, but it strengthens moderates of the majority party by giving them a credible threat to vote with the minority on the MTR if their concerns are not addressed in the bill. So the Democratic leadership’s attempt to eliminate the MTR is also an attempt to shift the balance of power in a progressive direction. Moderates should undoubtedly oppose the rule change if they think bipartisan governance has a chance to work, but, equally certainly, they will be under intense pressure from Democratic leaders to support it.

I think further efforts to foreclose minority participation are likely to be counterproductive. The House of Representatives suffered greatly as an institution due to the heavy-handedness of Republican leadership, and it would be a shame if the new boss was the same as the old boss.

P.S. I should note that there is some academic controversy as to just how much leverage the MTR gives to the minority party. Those who are interested should see this article by Keith Krehbiel and Adam Meirowitz and this one by Jason Roberts.

UPDATE: I request permission to revise and extend my remarks.