Congress-Centric Governance

One respect in which the United States differs quite sharply from most other democracies is in the extent to which the legislature shapes the details of policies. There’s a lot of variation from place to place, obviously, but in most democracies policies are really written by the executive branch in a collaboration between key cabinet members and civil servants. The legislature’s job is more-or-less to accept or reject these proposals. In America it doesn’t work like that. Even though it’s typical for staff talent to flow from the Hill to the White House and even though the professional staff resources of the executive branch far exceed those of the congress, the details of legislation are written by congress and then it’s left up to the White House to accept or reject the bills.

You can understand why a generation of Framers worried about the prospect that the President would make himself into a dictator thought this was a good way to arrange things, but it’s difficult to make the case that it improves the quality of public policy in the 21st century.

For example, here’s Congress helping the unemployed:

The bill, passed overwhelmingly by the House and headed to President Obama for his signature Friday, extends unemployment insurance benefits that were due to expire and renews an $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers, while also expanding it to cover many other home purchases.


In other words, to get a pretty good measure (extended unemployment benefits) passed, congress saw fit to both extend and expand the not-very-smart home buyers tax credit. Notably, the lack of merit to the home buyers tax credit is not particularly controversial in the policy domain. It’s just one of those things that a certain number of Republican members are obsessed with, notwithstanding the lack of support from conservative economists, and that Democratic members are happy to go along with, again notwithstanding the lack of support from progressive economists.

And as Kevin Drum points out things got even nuttier:

Why? Because even though Republicans were allowed to tack on a tax cut to the bill as the price of getting it passed, they decided to filibuster anyway unless they were also allowed to include an anti-ACORN amendment. Seriously. A bit of ACORN blustering to satisfy the Palin-Beck crowd is the reason they held up a bill designed to help people who are out of work in the deepest recession since World War II.

Meanwhile Tyler Cowen reports back from a meeting at the Treasury Department:

I worry less than did some of the other bloggers about the Treasury awareness of major economic problems going forward. As governmental institutions go, Treasury has a real incentive to a) worry about the fiscal future, and b) worry about worst-case scenarios, including for financial institutions. Their daily interaction with the bond market gives them a longer time horizon and a more economics-friendly perspective than most of their bureaucratic counterparts. The problem is Congress. For instance if someone at Treasury had a Yves Smith view of the banking system, they could not much act on it.

Given the system we have, one not only can but must call out individual senators and members of congress for acts of policy malfeasance. But in a structural sense, the congress is simply not well set-up to produce technically sound ways of achieving policy objectives. This is generally recognized by members of congress themselves in the abstract, who tend to suggest the appointment of outside commissions of various sorts as a way to deal with problems, but the recognition is rarely put into practice in a day-to-day sense. In principle, however, rather than an endless stream of talk about creating new ad hoc commissions you could seek some structural shift in congress’ role in policy design.