Monday, June 13, 2011

Attentive and Inattentive Publics: Citizens United and the Montana Senate Race

Debit and Credit Card Swipes.
A vote on a rule governing debate on the 2012 Homeland Security Appropriations Bill.

Who would’ve thought that these two obscure issues would become major issues in the Montana Senate race?

Senator Jon Tester has received a lot of press—both statewide and nationally—for his amendment to delay implementation of a federal rule putting a cap on the fees banks collect from debit and credit card transactions. That amendment, by the way, failed on the Senate floor late last week by a vote of 54 to 45 (the vote needed 60 to pass).

Meanwhile, Congressman Rehberg voted, back in April, against the Ryan Plan to overhaul Medicare (read a summary here). Of course, given the high percentage of seniors in the state of Montana, this vote made perfect sense. However, a vote on rule governing the debate of the Homeland Security appropriations bill is being cited as evidence that Rehberg actually supports the Ryan plan. What gives?
Both of these issues illustrate nicely the concepts, articulated by Doug Arnold in the The Logic of Congressional Action, of attentive and inattentive publics. In The Electoral Connection, David Mayhew explains that the primary factor motivating the behavior of members of Congress is the need to get reelected. The positions taken and the votes cast by members are all a function of the need to face voters at the ballot box. According to this account, members of Congress are delegates and not trustees—they merely do what the voters want.

Arnold argues, however, that Congress often must make hard choices and do things which are not popular but necessary. For example, it is not a popular position to close a military base in one’s congressional district, but it might be necessary to cut the budget. Congress must make decisions which are not always in the electoral individual interests of members. Given this fact, how does Congress and individual members make those decisions?

To answer that question, individual members first ask if the issue concerns something that the public cares about or not. Arnold discusses attentive and inattentive publics. If the issue is salient to voters and there are strong feelings about the issue, then the member will vote with the public UNLESS the traceability chain is weakened. Members do not want to be blamed for an unpopular vote, so Congress will often design procedures to make it harder to individual members to shoulder the blame for an unpopular vote. Congress will often delegate to bureaucracies or commissions to make the hard choices and the collective result will then be ratified by Congress. This is exactly what Congress did when it had to close military bases: they delegated to a commission (BRAC), it made the difficult choice, and the Congress merely ratified it.

But when the public is inattentive to an issue and is not particularly passionate about the issue then the member can use more discretion in casting their vote.
Unless, of course, that inattentive becomes an attentive public and that attentive public is on the other side of the issue from their member. How are attentive publics created? In lots of ways, but one way an issue can become salient among the public and opinion become solidified is through the actions of interest groups. And the power of interest groups to create attentive publics has much greater in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United (2010), which allows corporations and labor unions virtually unfettered access to the political airwaves during campaigns.

What does this have to do with credit card swipes and the Ryan plan? Very simply put, it is much harder for members of Congress to cast votes under the radar screen and out of the public limelight because it is much easier for interest groups to spend money to mold public opinion and generate attentive publics.
Take the issue of the credit/debit swipes. Senator Tester argues that it is important to delay the fee curtailment because—even though every bank in Montana is exempt because they are capitalized at less than $1 billion—Montana banks will be placed at a disadvantage. Large banks will have to lower their swipe fees, forcing small banks to do the same in order to remain competitive. This could hurt smaller banks much more than larger banks—so Tester argues.

Retailers, however, favor this bill because it lowers the cost of business for them. They have sponsored advertisements (hear them here) throughout Montana painting Jon Tester as the tool of big banks and Wall Street. And, according to some polling on the issue, it looks like what was once an obscure banking regulation fight between banks and retailers is no longer obscure. These ads and the press accounts have created an attentive public concerning the issue in the state, and this attentive public seems to think that delaying the fee cap is a bad idea. Part of the problem Senator Tester faces is his argument is complicated; it takes 30 seconds to explain while the retailer argument takes 5 seconds. Complicated arguments, unfortunately, often lose in politics even if they may be right.

In the case of Congressman Rehberg, he voted against the Medicare plan—which is the correct vote in the sense that Medicare has an attentive public (seniors) who feel strongly about keeping Medicare as it is. In short, Rehberg can say quite simply that he was defending Medicare for seniors.

The wrinkle, however, is the fact that the Congressman also cast a vote in favor of an open rule governing House debate on the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill. Open rules have become exceedingly rare in the House (see Barbara Sinclair’s work on this), as they allow anyone to amend the bill under discussion at any time and on any point (as long as the amendment is germane) during the course of the allotted debate. Democrats complained in 2006 of the increasing use by the Republican majority of closed rules, which oftentimes allowed no amendments from the floor on a bill and strictly limited debate. Democrats, however, found themselves arguing against this rule. Why?

Because the rule also contained a self-executing provision. This provision, once the rule passed, deemed that HR 34 (The House GOP Budget plan, of which the Ryan Medicare plan is a part) “shall have force and effect… in the House as though Congress has adopted such concurrent resolution” (see The Hill’s account here). In other words, once the House passed the rule establishing the parameters for debate on the Homeland Security Appropriations bill, the House budget which the Senate previously rejected would be considered in place. Congressman Rehberg voted for the rule—and Democrats are now claiming that Rehberg supports the Ryan Medicare plan (see “Congressman Rehberg votes to end Medicare as we know it”, a Montana Democratic Party press release, dated June 1, 2011). The hope, of course, is to suggest to an attentive public that Rehberg is no friend of Medicare.

On the one hand, what the Democrats are doing is smart politics—they are trying to tag Rehberg as a flip flopper and do so on an issue about which a group feels strongly about. The devil’s in the details, however. Did Congressman Rehberg vote for the rule in order to fund Homeland Defense or did he vote to implement the Ryan plan? Technically, he did both. The trouble from Rehberg’s perspective—even if the Democrats are grossly oversimplifying the issue—is a defense of his vote is complicated and makes him sound like a Washington insider. The Democratic version of the story is short, sweet, and already plays into perceptions seniors have about Republicans on the issue of Medicare.

To summarize, I think Senator Tester did himself few favors when offered his amendment to delay implementation of the credit/debit fee ceiling and the House Republicans did Congressman Rehberg few favors when they structured the rule governing debate on the Homeland Security Appropriations Bill as they did. Citizens United—whether you agree with the decision or not—has made it much harder for candidates to control the political debate and to protect themselves from being on the wrong side of public opinion that can be much more easily mobilized and shaped today by interest groups, corporations, and labor unions than at any time since 1974.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Turkish Resurgence: A Look at What Turkey’s New Foreign Policy Means for the US

By Brianne Haight

In February of 2010 I decided to opt out of another Montana winter and instead to take the semester to intern at the US Embassy in Athens, Greece. During my internship I learned a lot of things; one facet I took considerable interest in actually had less to do with Greece, and more with its neighbor to the east, Turkey. As Greece and Turkey have had a very long and at times very tense relationship, I became quite familiar with Turkish foreign policy. One concept that I heard a lot referring to a new direction in Turkish foreign policy was ‘neo-Ottomanism.’ It was my sheer intrigue with this reference that would eventually lead me to the subject of my capstone paper.

For my capstone, I wanted to first look at the causation of the recent shift we are seeing in Turkish foreign policy, which is, by some, characterized as ‘neo-Ottomanism.’ Historically, Turkish foreign policy has been firmly based in Ataturk’s founding ideas of modernization through close ties with the West and acceptance of their norms and policies. Throughout the 20th century, this translated into Turkey joining NATO in the 1950s, backing the West against the Soviet Union, and aspiring to join the EU. It also meant that Turkey paid little attention to most of the countries located geographically close to it. However, in the last decade, I found that a unique combination of events, actors, and politics in Turkey all contributed to produce a more proactive shift in their foreign policy. Presently, the atmosphere in Turkey is one where religiosity is on the rise, economic success has encouraged a search for new Eurasian markets, as well as substantial disillusionment with the EU over the slow ascension process. Even more, with Prime Minister Erdogan and the ruling AKP party having gathered considerable power over the traditionally strong pro-Western military, enough factors seem to be in place to produce an ideal backdrop for a shift in Turkish foreign policy. Add to that a new foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who feels Turkey has made a mistake by ignoring its backyard for so long, and thus insists on a more thorough regional engagement, and the result is a much more proactive foreign policy than has historically been seen in Turkey.

After analyzing the reasons for this recent shift, I focused on what this shift meant for some of Turkey’s historical allies and beneficiaries of their traditional foreign policy directives. One of the most interesting cases I looked at was the US and the ramifications Turkey’s new more assertive foreign policy will have on the US’s relationship with Turkey.

Initially, President Obama had hopes of calling on Turkey in an effort to make US-Turkey relations the bedrock for the way in which he was going to reach out to the rest of the Muslim world. However, rather than simply being able to rely on Turkey to be an instrument of US power in its region, the Obama Administration is now facing a stronger and more assertive Turkish government that can and has been shown to disagree with it on key foreign policy issues, ranging from Iran’s nuclear program to Israel’s Gaza offensive. The impact for US-Turkey relations is that the US is no longer going to be able to fully utilize Turkey as a proxy in its bid to assert US foreign policies to the degree it could in the past. Ultimately, this more assertive Turkish foreign policy will result in a relationship based more on ad hoc agreements than utter compliance.

Although there are, and have shown to be clear negative impacts for the US, which has historically capitalized on a weaker Turkey to follow its lead, such as during the Cold War, the US should not cast off the potential value in a stronger, more assertive Turkey in the post-Cold War era. A Turkey that is willing to take on greater responsibility for regional stability in the Middle East is something the US needs; the US cannot manage security in all regions of the globe. The US has long been looking for someone to take up responsibility in the region. A leaked 2010 US State Department Cable written by current US Ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffery, asserted this when he suggested in a cable, “having regional heavyweights take on burdens, thereby relieving us, has long been a desired goal of US policy.” An appreciation of Turkey’s stabilizing role in the region and a willingness to allow Turkey to assume managerial responsibilities, although yes, without being able to dictate how Ankara should define its priorities, is something the US must be open to, and if so could reap possible benefits.

In my capstone I found that although a more proactive Turkey is requiring historical allies to readjust their relationships with the country, a more assertive Turkish foreign policy should be perceived not as a serious threat but a mixed bag where possible benefits could be realized. It is a mistake to embrace an alarmism that selectively concentrates on the dangers and fails to recognize the opportunities opened by a new Turkish direction. It is easy to argue that historical allies fear this change; however, although there will of course be some disruption in status quo relations, with some negative impacts, there are benefits from the evolution of this relationship. If it is going to happen- and it looks like it is- the US would be remiss to not acknowledge the shift and consequently miss gaining from the possible benefits.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Who Will be a Choice Architect?

Who Will be a Choice Architect?

I have been reading some Richard Thaler on choice architecture. Thaler, you may know, is the co-author with Cass Sunstein of the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The things I’m reading now describe how choice architecture works in the market but it got me thinking about politics and other things.

Briefly, choice architecture is the obvious idea that decisions are influenced by how the choices are presented. We rarely bother to change the default settings on software and so the manufacturer “nudges” us to use it in a certain configuration (Microsoft nudges us toward Internet Explorer by including it on PCs). Thaler uses the example of an MP3 player. When the market first emerged, we made purchasing decisions based on size, storage capacity, and features – we usually chose the one that gave us the most storage and features within our budget constraint. Then Apple came along.

The Apple IPod changed the choice architecture by presenting a product that has less functionality and fewer features. By conventional measures, they are inferior products; but we all have one – why? Very simply, Apple singlehandedly changes our evaluative framework by making a product that is so unlike the others that we think of it differently when we make a choice of what to buy. Apple products are elegant, almost sexy; just listen to Stephen Fry go on about Apple products. All purchases are decisions about value; Apple changed how we defined value from functionality to aesthetics. Sometimes, creative people change the way we make decisions.

Another example: Thirty years ago, there was only one kind of home mortgage; 30-year fixed rate. The law said that home loans had to be reported in a uniform way – the APR and associated values. That made choosing the best mortgage very easy. Now, we have many types of mortgages and APR is no a longer sufficient metric. The bankers changed the choice architecture to include all sorts of features that made home loans more complex and rendered APR just one of many parts within the evaluative framework. Sometimes, consumer confusion and eventual market failure is the result.

Here is how this might work in politics. President Obama will not be contested from his own party; at least by any serious candidate, so that choice is easy. On the Republican side, there are multiple declared and quasi-candidates that are all running on the same message. There is variance of course between Gingrich, Palin, Bachman, and Romney but their message is the same – vote for me because I’m Not Obama. Within this choice architecture Obama wins hands down because the intraparty competition among the Republicans will so weaken the winning candidate they will be unable to recover and present a coherent political message. Incumbents win frequently for multiple reasons but one of them is that voters received a coherent message throughout the campaign.

The strongest Republican candidate may be the one who takes political risk and presents a new choice architecture. I do not know what that might be yet but I am watching to see not only who emerges but also how them frame themselves. A good example of this is a recent article by Joshua Green in this month’s Atlantic that suggests how Sarah Palin could have run as a legitimate reformer given her track record in Alaska. The implication is that had she made that decision rather than to build an identity as an entertainer, she could be a viable and credible candidate.

With all the above being said, I am not anticipating a true choice architect emerging in the next campaign. Like most people in positions of leadership (or want to be leaders), risk aversion is the default strategy. The political system and the media seem incapable of assimilation of a nontraditional candidate like a Palin or Bachman; they are much more comfortable with a Romney. Let’s remember, for all his apparent differences, Obama ran a very traditional campaign on a very traditional theme – change. In short, there may be no nudge toward a new choice architecture in the upcoming Presidential campaign and until there is, it is rational to expect the candidates and election of 2012 to resemble those of the past.