July 2011


Structure and cosmetics

Matt Yglesias has a solid post summing up something he’s been harping on quite a bit lately — the strange obsession of Washington elites with a fantasy, “centrist” president. The main point he makes — that we already have a decidedly centrist president, and that a “non-partisan” replacement for Obama wouldn’t change anything in terms of policy — is the most salient one on this particular topic. All of the pining for Mike Bloomberg, Lincoln Chaffee or whomever the third-party flavor of the month is rests on the fervent and mistaken belief that Barack Obama’s agenda is that of a socialist revolutionary.

But the secondary point that Yglesias makes is actually the more broadly interesting one:

The main difference, as far as I can see, is that getting executive branch nominees confirmed would be much more difficult for a nonpartisan president. Essentially every nominee would be greeted with overwhelming hostility from all quarters as Senators seek leverage points to influence executive branch policy.

It’s boring, and it’s not a satisfying answer, but it’s true that most of the structural-institutional problems with the federal government can be traced back to the Senate, either in its existence or its design. This is just one example — the president has to go to the Senate, hat in hand, to get a significant portion of his administration staffed. Add the filibuster to the mix, and you’re left with a situation in which 41 senators can decide that they don’t like an executive agency and that it can’t have a director, no matter what. The routine deployment of filibuster threats and anonymous holds also means that standard-issue legislation requires a supermajority in the Senate to pass, and the Constitutional design of the upper house drastically overrepresents small states in both Congress and the electoral college.

Many of the problems caused by the Senate are things that the public dislikes — it increases horsetrading and bickering, and makes it more difficult to pass even minor legislation. But would it be possible to get rid of the Senate? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that you could get 67 senators to vote for a Senate-abolishing Constitutional amendment and that the biggest hurdle came from the general public. I doubt anyone’s ever polled support for abolishing the Senate, but in the wake of the 2000 election, there was never a time when abolishing the electoral college even enjoyed support at the level of Al Gore’s popular vote total — that is, at the time when such a move should’ve been at its most popular, even some of the voters who got screwed by this institutional anachronism still didn’t want to get rid of it. I wonder whether this reaches back to the way civic education works here, with an emphasis in both formal schooling and informal norms on reverence for the Constitution. Even though it’s totally stupid in 2011, the Senate is a central part of how American government operates, and it appears that the public is much more likely to see and judge individual political actors than the largely invisible institutions that restrict them.

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