Sausage is Delicious, Mediocre Legislation is Problematic

Various analogies between the legislative process and sausage-making are always in the air. A hardy perennial of the American political discourse. But when considering the prospects for legislative reform, it’s worth considering some serious differences between the two.

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The crux of the difference, I would say, is that comparing the operations of the US Congress to those of a sausage-maker is a huge insult to the sausage industry. You may or may not think that the sausage-making process looks “gross” in some sense, but the fact of the matter is that sausage is delicious. The other day, I made some pesto from scratch. It was good. I served it over pasta with some sausage braised in cider vinegar, and that made it better. Because sausage is delicious. Sausage-making, whether you want to make it or not, is the way you make delicious sausage. If there were some better way to do it, people would do it that way instead.

The US Congress isn’t like that at all. The idea that it’s some kind of gross-looking sausage-making process is, at heart, part of the culture of flattery and egomania that’s made the place so dysfunctional. The implicit moral of the sausage analogy, after all, is that like sausage-making it looks bizarre but is actually the best way to make the product. Actual congressional legislation-writing, by contrast, looks like things like the President proposing to cut agricultural subsidies to the wealthiest farmer, that idea being dead-on-arrival, and nobody being even slightly surprised because everyone knows that the committee system and the over-representation of rural areas make it impossible to contemplate an even vaguely rational approach to this. And farm subsidies aside, whenever members of congress want to signal that they take something very seriously, they do that by proposing that the issue be addressed outside the regular congressional process.

This is often a good idea. But that’s precisely because the regular congressional process is not a good way of making laws. It’s not the only way to make laws. Different models exist abroad. Models exist in US state legislators. Models exist in different ad hoc procedures congress has created to deal with specific problems. The members of congress and their staffs simply choose not to change and improve the process. Because the status quo happens to serve them well.