A Transparent Failure

In the week since it officially folded, there has been a lot of discussion of why the super committee (hereafter SC) failed, whether it was ever intended to “succeed”, and what the future ramifications are. So in the spirit of better-late-than-never, I will share a few of my thoughts on these topics.

Let me begin first as to whether the SC process was designed to succeed. From the perspective of a student of legislative bargaining, I can think of at least three mechanisms that the SC could exploit to succeed under circumstances where the normal legislative process would fail.

  1. The Agenda Control Mechanism: The SC would have the privilege of bringing a package of spending reductions and tax increases to the floor of each chamber that would be subject to up-or-down votes. Consequently, any agreed upon bargains could not be undone by floor amendments.
  2. The Composition Mechanism: The SC might have a composition that is more conducive to reaching an agreement than Congress as a whole.
  3. The Procedural Mechanism: The SC might adopt internal procedures that were more conducive to reaching an agreement than the procedures used in standing committees.

I think the agenda control mechanism is a very powerful one, and its merit was shown in the military base closing process in the 1990s and in the fast-track approval of many trade agreements. Of course, we never got to find out if it would have worked in this case because the composition and procedural mechanisms were not used very effectively.

Given the degree of polarization in Congress, the most obvious way to manipulate the composition to improve the likelihood of success would be to appoint a SC with more moderates and fewer ideologues than the Congress itself. Of course, given the appointment structure (with party leaders making unilateral appointments), this was not likely to happen. And it didn’t happen. Using Keith Poole’s “common space” estimates, I find that the standard deviation of the SC’s ideal points were .507 compared to the standard deviation in the combined House and Senate of .437. So the appointments mechanism actually increased polarization. Just to underscore that the inflated polarization was no accident or statistical fluke, I randomly drew 1000 twelve-member SCs from the membership of the House and Senate. Only 90 of these had standard deviations larger than the one our leaders actually gave us.

So how might have the SC used the procedural mechanism better. I would make the case that they should have made the process less transparent and more secretive. Not without justification, Americans prefer transparent procedures both to hold elected leaders accountable and because the decisions from transparent procedures are seen as more legitimate. But transparency can also get in the way of good policy making. This is a point that Tim Groseclose and I made some time ago. The main argument is that sometimes transparency leads to strategic disagreements when politicians electoral position taking relatively more than the rewards of successful policy compromise. Under such circumstances, bargaining failure occurs as agreements that would have been reached under less transparent procedures (where position taking less valuable) fail to materialize. Similar arguments have been made by John Gilmour and David Stasavage.

Of course to some such as the Sunlight Foundation, there will never be enough transparency. But when I heard members of the SC start to negotiate in public and through the media, I pretty much expected that failure was near. Instead of hammering out a package with bitter medicine for all, members started floating proposals that they knew the other side could not publicly accept and then campaigning against them for not doing accepting them. I wouldn’t go so far as to say tighter lips would have saved this ship. But when the daily updates of the SC’s progress (or lack thereof) began to surface, she was clearly going down.

So this brings me back to the question as to whether it was ever intended to succeed. After all, couldn’t our leaders see that allowing a sub-committee more polarized than the Congress itself to debate each other in public would not lead to a good policy outcome? I would hope not. But then how is it that both sides thought they could win politically?

As for how this plays out in the long run, I have no original thoughts. But I thought Ezra Klein‘s analysis was pretty astute. With the looming sequestration and the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in 2013, the Democrats can pretty much obtain all their policy goals without lifting a finger (as long as they hold on to either the presidency or the Senate). Ironic since I have generally argued that gridlock supports conservative policy goals (see chapter 9).

So if I were scoring this round, I would have to give it to the Democrats.

3 thoughts on “A Transparent Failure

  1. paul g.


    This was one of my assignments for my Congress class next semester! I don’t know whether to curse you or praise you.

    I think praise ultimately wince this means I have a nice illustration for them once they complete the common space assignment on their own.


  2. David Littleboy

    But the Dems can propose a middle-class only tax cut and say thank you if the Reps go along, or bang them over the head for being the hypocritical only-friends-of-the-rich sleazes they really are if they don’t. So letting the Bush tax cuts expire is a win-win situation. (But this is after the elections, when things will be very different. And in the meantime we can propose those middle class tax cuts as a campaign platform.) Meanwhile SS, Medicare, and Medicaid are untouched and the military is hit hard, which are all good things. And the long-tern deficit reduction effect of failing is far larger than any “success” could have been.

    There’s no success like failure here. Anyone who believes in reality should be talking about how this “failure” was the amazing progressive success it really is.

  3. Romain Wacziarg

    I think the problem with Ezra Klein’s argument is that the Bush tax cuts issue will have to be revisited. The Dems can’t just stay put because when the tax cuts expire next year that will be a huge tax increase on the middle class, and if they let that happen they are toast politically (and economically – it would have strong recessionary effects). Since this issue will be bargained over again, that opens up the possibility of a more pro-Republican outcome. Strategically, the Republicans will love to have this fight just around election time.
    Klein has more of a point on sequestration but even there it is unlikely that Dems can sustain politically defense cuts of the magnitude that sequestration entails. This issue too will have to be revisited, and if not Democrats expose themselves to charges that they are weak on defense.

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