Managing the Budget: An American Story of Structure Induced Inefficiency?

In a recent blog, Sen. Fritz Hollings provides an answer to the prevalent question, “What’s Wrong with Washington?”  According to the Senator, “no one wants to pay for government and the economy is being off-shored.” His answer, with respect to paying more, appears intuitive, even more so because it’s a mainstream position among elites: as the nation’s budgetary problems continue to spiral, most diagnostics point to high spending and low taxes; treatment amounts to reducing spending, increasing revenue, or both. But the economic problems facing the country have become political problems. These seemingly simple solutions seem difficult, if not impossible, to impose when one considers the mechanism through which spending is cut or revenue is increased. How, given voters often contradictory views on taxes and spending,  do we convince lawmakers to cut programs or increase taxes?

Arguments frequently involve educating the citizenry, electing better politicians, and, as Sen. Fritz Hollings argues, pushing the President to step in and fill his role as budgetary leader (as if he is pressured by some other voting public with less ambivalent opinions on the budget). Fewer arguments include addressing the systemic and systematic origins of the problem; that there could be something about the political system that favors low taxes and high spending, among other contradictory public policy positions.

The notion of representation in American government is perhaps consistent with Hanna Pitkin’s “descriptive representation.” This does not mean that legislators are merely supposed to look, in the most obvious of personal characteristics, like the citizens they represent; that they are supposed to “mirror” constituents or they are supposed to be a “condensation” of the constituents for whom they deliberate. Rather, this sense of descriptive representation suggests that resemblance of the public is a device, a tool, to ensure that lawmakers not only look like the represented, but they think, act, and have the same interests as the represented and, therefore, “mirror” in deliberation public opinion. To the extent that this goal is achieved, it is no surprise that public policy, consistent with public opinion, can be contradictory. To achieve descriptive representation we use elections as both a means to authorize and hold accountable those who make political decisions.  What is expected, what is sought, is not that political leaders act in the best interest of the governed (particularly when interest and opinion are at odds), but that they serve as a mouthpiece for the governed.

But the problem is not that public policy mirrors public opinion. And this is most certainly not to say that the public is incapable of achieving a cohesive, if not “constrained” attitude. If the problem was simply contradictory opinions we would find conditions worse in systems where mass and elite opinion have stronger ties. For in the midst of crises, mass opinion becomes increasingly coherent. The problem is that the system systematically obstructs change, or at least abrupt change. Veto points within the separation of powers provide a venue through which decisions can be shirked, while posture and “position-taking” are embraced. The problem may be that the American system of government presents an image of descriptive representation without actually ensuring it: in deliberation, positions may reflect opinion, but in output this is more difficult to achieve. Rather than the problem being descriptive representation, it might be the extent to which it deviates from it.

With that said, a system rife with veto points has numerous benefits. It has stability in policy institutions: the capacity to change policy quickly might not only be a means to effectively manage political, economic, and social crises, but it may also generate such crises. Additionally, the numerous veto points generates compromise: for supermajoritarian rules require more encompassing coalitions. In this sense, the problem is not that the system has gone astray, but that it is doing precisely what it was designed to do.