Governing v. Elections: A False Dichotomy

Pundits, particularly those supporting the majority, love to emphasize an “inherent tension” in our governing system: Governing v. Elections. You likely heard this frequently during the healthcare debate. As progress on healthcare slowed pundits (particularly liberals) went nuts. They claimed that Republicans were sacrificing governance for seat gains in the next Congress. It’s a catchy line. Nothing like smearing the minority as a bunch of unpatriotic babies refusing to cooperate in Congress. Here is the problem though, pundits assume that member goals are purely electoral. This isn’t surprising given their primary interest is in electoral horse races (pick up any newspaper since March). Regardless, the media construct a situation where parties only care about elections. Policy is framed as a consequence of their electoral goals (If you want to know why this isn’t the case, go to The Monkey Cage and read any post on elections. The economy is the largest factor driving electoral gains and losses) and not a goal itself. The media has managed to turn Congress into a reelection machine. Incumbent reelection rates aside (that is for another day), this is a disservice to the legislative process. One the one hand, I don't want to bash this assumption too much. This is, after all, a nice incorporation of Mayhew’s theory: lawmakers are single-minded reelection seekers. The downside is that pundits take his theory too literally. Mayhew himself admitted that his book was a bit of a caricature (a modest statement, but the point is interesting). While reelection explains a lot, it can't explain everything and certainly glosses over legislative nuance. Reelection on its own is an empty concept. It says a lot without saying much at all (the hallmark of any great theory). Reelection is a primary goal. Awesome. But how do you get reelected? Trying to answer this question is much more difficult and the media hasn’t done it justice.

In assuming everything is electorally driven the media has simply stopped assuming other factors besides reelection drive congressional politics. This is where we enter the debate about elections v. governing. More often than not (mostly because they often ignore economic factors), the media inherently links governing and electoral well being. In this game, legislative politics is pretty simple. Legislative efficiency equals majority seat gains. Legislative inefficiency equals minority seat gains. Therefore, if the minority uses stalling tactics, they sacrifice the well being of the nation to gain seats. Reading politics as a zero-sum game between governing and elections is pretty pessimistic and doesn’t have a firm empirical grounding. It is pretty hard to imagine how doing nothing will somehow help a party gain seats. I mean, when was the last time you were paid to waste time? Never? Me either. This is, in part, why I think both parties' approval numbers are in the dumpster.

Again, it is a nice, simple game that doesn't have much grounding. For example, the 85th Congress is among the least efficient in history. How were the minority’s stallers rewarded? With fewer seats than the previous Congress! The 1958 election resulted 48 fewer seats in the House and twelve fewer Senators for the Republican Party. The 86th Congress went on do to even less than the 85th. As a result, Republican gained 2 Senate seats and 21 House seats. These numbers are hardly impressive.

Looking at agenda failure for top priority legislation (Source: Binder, 1999) compared to minority seat gains we see that this relationship is "interesting." It's mainly interesting in the sense the two have almost no relationship (no relationship whatsoever is a bit strong. After all, they are on the same graph). I'd give you a marginal effect of seat gains per-percentage increase in successful obstruction, but the relationship is so insignficant that reporting it would be an injustice to statistics (I'll give you a hint: much less than 1%). This evidence is hardly conclusive, but you get the idea.

The point is that stalling tactics hardly reap seat gains. It’s difficult to stop governance completely and expect better results on Election Day. Normally, as is the case with most/all elections, the economy tends to drive the results.

Regardless, Congress has a rich history of stalling tactics and procedures. Simply slowing down the process can achieve a great many things for the opposition party. Several bills have met their fate due to filibusters. Nearly every civil rights bill up until 1964-65 comes to mind. In the early 1900s a great many tariff bills met their demise because of extended debate, dilatory motions, and parliamentary tactics. So obstructionism isn't useless. It just isn't helpful if you want more seats in Congress.

This begs the question: if stalling doesn’t gain party seats, why stall? The fact is that stalling politics may not have great effect on electoral gains but they can, and often do, kill legislative initiatives. This is where we come full circle. Not everything is motivated by reelection. Framing obstructive politics as an electoral act misses the target. Good public policy is also an important goal of political parties, their members in Congress, and the people they represent (Almost all Fenno's work: 1973, 1978...). Parties form, after all, along broad policy agreements. Of course, winning elections makes enacting those policies easier. But the auspices of political parties arise from an idea of good legislation; not to win elections for the sake of winning elections. Therefore, stopping disagreeable legislation is just as important as creating good policies. Is this electoral? Maybe. However, it certainly isn't purely electoral which is where this dichotomy falls apart.

In my next post I'll explore obstructionist politics a bit more. For now, understand the stalling is not electorally beneficial. Obstructionist politics is a legislative game not an electoral game.