Democratic Accountability and Legislative Discretion

I recently heard or read about a member of the DC City Council complaining that the mayor was concentrating authority over something or other in his own hands rather than leaving it in the hands of a separate board nobody had ever heard him. His specific complaint was that this action undermined democracy. That, I thought, was 100 percent backwards. Democracy works best when power to govern — and therefore responsibility for governing well — is concentrated in the hands of elected officials who voters are able to monitor and get rid of if they do a bad job. One of the most insidious ways in which the professional governing class manages to evade democratic accountability is precisely by dispersing power to such a wide array of interlocking boards and councils and agencies that nobody knows who’s responsible for anything.

That’s what I thought of when I read this remark in a web chat with Ezra Klein:

San Francisco: This whole process makes me yearn for the system of most European countries, where civil servants write the details of most legislation, which then gets an up-or-down vote by the rubber-stamps in Parliament. There’s less democratic control, but it’s also less annoying than the diva-ism of the Senate.

Ezra Klein: Yep.

I don’t think it’s right to see a tradeoff here between “democratic control” and annoying diva-ism. The diva-ism itself undermines democracy. Giving vast amounts of individual discretion to senators only enhances democratic accountability if you assume that most people are likely to dedicate huge amounts of time and energy to the details of what their senators are doing. Which is to say that in practice senatorial discretion enhances senators’ accountability to lobbyists and concentrated interests who are, in fact, likely to dedicate huge amounts of time and energy to the details of what’s happening in congress.


The way to improve democratic accountability is to line practice up better with people’s monitoring abilities. Most people are going to vote based on crude heuristics. Under the circumstances, if legislators can only make crude decisions (for the bill, against the bill; for the prime minister, for toppling the prime minister) that probably maximizes accountability as well as minimizing annoying divaism.