Power Without Consequence

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The overwhelming conventional wisdom is that the European Parliament is a bit of a joke. And here’s a great catch from Joshua Tucker who notes that in a recent “Charlamagne” column, the Economist described the problem thusly: “The parliament is elected but not truly accountable. Members can vote down any law without risking the fall of a government and snap elections: that is power without consequences.”

This is, as Tucker notes, similar to the structural problem with the United States Senate in the era of routine supermajority.

But our system adds to that a large helping of responsibility without power. Voters judge incumbent officeholders on the basis of results, but the incumbents are not actually capable of steering the ship of state without substantial assistance from the opposition party. Of course we can’t know whether current conditions would be better or worse had Barack Obama been able to govern with a freer hand. But what we do know is that insofar as Mitch McConnell’s interventions into the policy process have made things better, the political benefits of those interventions have flowed to Democrats. Conversely, insofar as McConnell has made things worse, the benefits flow to McConnell’s legislative caucus. The latent problems with this system were muted for most of the 20th century because the political parties were very ideologically heterogeneous, but in a world of well-sorted parties there are a lot of bad incentives lurking in this neighborhood.