Parliamentary Procedure Counterfactuals

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From Bryan Curtis’ profile of Rick Hertzberg:

With Obama in office, Hertzberg says he will turn his attention to another of his long-time obsessions: the byzantine structures of American government. Triumphant Democrats have discovered that big victories in 2008 haven’t instantly led to policy outcomes like, say, health care reform. In the British system, the public option would have been a fait accompli; in what Hertzberg calls our “ridiculously undemocratic” Senate, health care can be single-handedly dynamited by a Max Baucus or a Joe Lieberman.

“Right now, we have a situation where the human occupants are about as good as we’re going to get,” Hertzberg says. “So my attention goes back to the structure they’re trapped in. That’s what Obama and the Democrats are in the grip of now. And that remains to be fixed.”

Hertzberg is the inspiration for my own fixation on these issues, so I completely agree with him that this is where the temperature needs to be raised. That said, I think the particular counterfactual should be specified more precisely. One of the less remarked-upon consequences of our nutty system of legislation is that presidential campaign promises exist in this kind of odd state, mixing memory and desire. Some promises look back at presidential actions not taken—an EPA endangerment finding, signing SCHIP expansion, signing Fair Pay Act, signing minimum wage increase—and promise to do them. Others constitute a vague pseudo-promise to gin up legislative support for ideas that don’t have the votes needed to pass the Senate—EFCA, a public option with Medicare rates, a 100 percent auction of emissions permits.

Precisely because sophisticated observers understand that these “desire” promises aren’t really promises, interest-groups and voters who have strong feelings about these things don’t need to act on those feelings during a campaign. Consequently, candidates can make unrealistic promises to interest-groups or ideologues without fully facing the wrath of the other side. Ultimately, I think this not only breeds worse policy, but it breeds an unnecessarily childish political debate. If we knew in advance that election-winners would be basically able to implement their agendas, then it would be more necessary for party leaders to campaign on agendas that they think are compatible with electoral victory and governing success. One thing you see in Britain is that opposition parties with a realistic chance of winning tend to put forward relatively modest platforms full of explicit commitments to not change certain aspects of the policy status quo. Precisely because you can have wild swings in policy, leaders who want to win can’t just kinda sorta promise their base that they’ll get everything they want.