Institutions v. Agency: Why the Senate is Weird

The “problem of the Senate” is a hot topic today. David Broder, Jonathan Chait, Jon Bernstein, and John Sides all commented on what is making the Senate problematic. The basic debate is whether the Senate is dysfunctional because of the institution itself or because of its faulty leadership. On the one hand you have Broder and Packer who argue that the Senate lacks leadership. In short, the Senate lacks the proper leaders to effectively lead. This places a heavy emphasis on agency, but O.K. On the other hand, you have Chait, Bernstein, and Sides saying that it is the institution. In short, there are no perfect leaders and even if you did find them, the Senate would corrupt their individual influence. After all, leaders are elected based on the preferences and goals of their member’s. It's an interesting debate. Exactly how much of what we observe is due to individuals or the institution. This is one of those things that lies at the heart of institutional theory and rational choice.

In my opinion both sides are right but not to the extent that they argue. I tend to lean toward the institutionalist perspective but we can’t ignore the role of individual Senators and leaders in this process. Here’s an example, the Senate’s rules have been largely stable for the past thirty years. However, we can look at graphs (like above and below) and see clear changes in Senate members and operation. Even within the last six-years we see massive increases in cloture votes (a bit of a flawed measure but it highlights some interesting points). Is that a function of the rules? Sure, at some level it’s a function of the rules. The rules, after all, permit members to filibuster and object to unimous consent. But it’s also a function of the people in Congress. Increased use of the filibuster, cloture, and other holds and obstructionist tactics are not the result of changing rules but the erosion of previous institutional norms. Norms, unlike rules, are social understandings between members; not firmly stated rules strictly forbidding particular behaviors. This is where agency kicks in. Members can choose to observe or ignore norms more freely than they can ignore rules.

As Chiat, Nyhan, and Sides all point out, since 1878 polarization has been the norm rather than exception. As we enter the next decade party polarization has persisted longer than depolarized parties (at least since 1878). However, the filibuster’s dysfunction is a new development (like, really new by historical standards). So we can’t strictly say that the institution is the only one at fault here. While it is absolutely true that the institution is likely the primary driver in this process, it is also true that good leadership plays a role, and an important one at that. Members choose to abuse or respect the rules and norms of the chamber. We can't say this is strictly institutional because it is a choice and not something preordained. Some may argue institutions drive members toward abusing the rules and they wouldn't necessarily be wrong. There is a long history supporting this claim. But why individuals and leaders choose to abuse the rules at a particular moment in history is what makes individuals an important component to the institution and its rules reforms.

So that is my caveat. Yes, the institution is the primary reason we see these changes primarily because it drives so many features of the process (polarization, social networks within Congress, procedural politics, etc). But agency also plays an important role. We can pinpoint moments of stagnant rules and still observe changes in politics and behavior. Agency is an important part of institutionalism (For anyone interested, Skowronek and Glassman (2007) edited a great book on agency and institutions.). I'll touch on agency and the institution more fully in my next post.