Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Public Debt Limit, Part II

It would appear congressional Republicans and the Obama Administration are getting nowhere in their budget talks despite the looming August 2nd deadline. If the two sides cannot agree by then, the United States will be in default on its loans. Who knows what would happen next? Most economists agree nothing pretty.

In light of these difficulties, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell floats a third option: let's give the president the power to increase the public debt limit himself. Here's a video of McConnell discussing the plan:

The McConnell option nicely ties my last two posts together (see here and here). Congress finds it difficult to make politically hard choices when the public is attentive and opinions are intensely held. Congress also finds it difficult to make tough choices when it's easy to pin the blame on individual members. Raising the public debt limit is an example of an issue where the public is attentive, opinions are intensely held on the issue, and blame can be easily pinned on members by those opposed to the actions of those members. Hence, Congress--as Anthony King describes it--"runs scared" and either avoids the issue or finds away to punt the problem to someone else.

As the Crossroads GPS ad makes it clear, Republicans and vulnerable Democrats will be loathe to vote to increase the public debt limit. It is all to easy to craft a commercial and blame the member for increasing the nation's debt. Both Republicans and Democrats have attentive publics to worry about: The Republicans the Tea Party, and Democrats their base (those who receive many of the entitlements that would be cut in any deal). The end result is congressional leaders finding it difficult to cut a deal because members are not willing to put their careers on the line for one vote. To illustrate the point, when Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D-PA) cast the deciding vote for President Clinton's budget (which raised taxes on the middle class, despite Clinton's campaign promise) in 1993, Republicans were heard chanting: "Nah, Nah, Nah. Nah, Nah, Nah. Hey, Hey, Goodbye." And Congresswoman Margolies-Mezvinsky--who represented a Republican district and promised to not raise taxes on the middle class--lost in the 1994 Republican tidal wave. Voting against constituents on issues that are highly visible is not something members of Congress are eager to do.

Into the stalemate comes the McConnell option. Let's give the power to the president. Very simply put, this eliminates the traceability chain for members now and into the future and provides a solution to the current crisis. When Congress couldn't close military bases, they created a commission. When Congress couldn't develop a timely budget, they gave the power to the president. And when Congress realized that parochial interests undermined the nation's interest in trade policy (see the Smoot Hawley Tariff), they gave the president increasing power to negotiate trade agreements and Fast Track Trade Authority.

Congress has a long history of being unable to overcome the collective action problem, and their solution has been to increasingly give power to the executive branch. Given the flood of special interest money into the campaign process and the rise of what Jonathan Rauch calls hyperpluralism--both of which make it more difficult to make those hard choices and to govern--I suspect the powers of the executive branch will continue to increase at the expense of legislative branch. And I think both the left and the right can agree that this is not a good thing and certainly not what the Founding Fathers intended.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Interest Group Spending, the Public Debt, and Tester-Rehberg

Remember my earlier blog about Citizens United and special interest dollars? Well, Crossroads GPS--the organization put together by Karl Rove and which was quite instrumental in the 2010 congressional races--has dropped some money on Montana television targeting Senator Tester. You can read about the ad and watch it here.

A couple of points about the ad. First, there's nothing new here. Without saying so directly, this is a standard "[INSERT DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE NAME] is too liberal for [INSERT STATE]" type ad. It focuses on one of the key reputational issues that divides the Democratic and Republican Party: taxes and spending. And it's an issue that is salient to voters--not only in Montana, but nationally.

Second, the ad makes the point that Senator Tester voted five times to increase the public debt. All the votes are cited at the bottom of the ad, so you can carefully check the veracity of the ad's claims. And yes, the claims are true: Senator Tester voted on all five occasions to increase the public debt limit (although, in some cases, the debt limit increase was part of a larger bill). The votes are very carefully chosen--in all five cases, Congressman Rehberg voted no.

But, as I tell my students, votes need to be placed into context. As such, there are two important points to be made about increasing the public debt limit.

First, votes to increase the public debt are tied to votes on the budget--which is submitted by the administration. It is the job of the administration to submit a budget with its priorities--and these priorities often represent key cleavages between the parties. As such, they are partisan votes. The president's party supports the budget, and the opposition party does not. Very simply put, Tester--as a member of the president's party--supported his president's budget. Congressman Rehberg, as a Republican--did not.

Second, the majority party must govern so it must pass a budget--balanced or not. If the majority party in Congress does not pass a budget and does not increase the public debt limit, the country goes into default. All kinds of bad things can happen when this occurs, and the majority party would squarely shoulder the blame. Passing budgets and increasing debt limits is what governing is all about.

Watching the ad, it appears that the Democrats and Senator Tester are profligate spenders--and when you check the record--Republicans seem to be the champions of fiscal responsibility. But, if we go beyond these votes to look at previous congresses when the Republicans and Congressman Rehberg were both in the majority and had to govern, we find both the Republican majority and Congressman Rehberg voted to increase the public debt limit.

For example, in the 107th Congress (the first in which Congressman Rehberg served), the Congressman and his party voted to increase the public debt limit on Senate Bill S2578 (roll call vote is here).

In the 108th Congress, again, we see the Republican majority and the Congressman voting to increase the public debt limit on Senate Bill 2986 (see roll call vote here).

Due to changes in the House rules, the record is a bit harder to trace in the 109th Congress--the vote on raising the public debt limit is not "clean". According to THOMAS, the bill to raise the public debt limit (House Joint Resolution 47) passed pursuant to House Rule XXVII and House Resolution 95--which the Republican majority and Congressman Rehberg supported (see roll call vote here).

Heck, even Dick Cheney voted to increase the public debt limit when he served as a House member in the 100th Congress. He did so on House Joint Resolution 324, Roll Call 330 (sorry, no link, as I had to search Lexis Nexis Congressional Universe which is only available to subscribers).

Both parties are to blame for the debt situation in which we now find ourselves. Both parties have passed budgets that have increased spending and increased the public debt. Even Republicans serving with Ronald Reagan as president supported budgets which have added to the public debt. Neither party should shoulder the blame alone, and frankly, neither should Senator Tester.

Of course, Crossroads GPS is an independent organization that cannot legally coordinate with Congressman Rehberg's Senate campaign. He had nothing to do with the advertisement, and both candidates are well-aware that these kinds of ads--while not telling untruths--do not tell the whole story. This is yet another example of how the Citizens United decision allows independent organizations not accountable to the electorate to wrest control of the campaign agenda from the candidates and their parties.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Congressman Thompson, "One of Us", and a Representational Quandry

Happy 4th of July!

Interesting piece in today's New York Times on Congressman Thompson and conflicts of interest. Read it here.

What's interesting about this piece is very often constituents want a member representing them who is, as Richard Fenno puts it, "one of us". Here's Fenno's classic depiction of the "one of us" style of representation from one of the member's he observed:

"I managed to grow up thirty-five miles down highway 80 in Montrose. So I know this county. My father worked for twenty-six years in this county for U.S. Steel as a member of Local 121, United Steelworkers. So I know something about you and your problems" (Fenno 1978: 60).

Mike Thompson clearly is "one of us". He's closely connected to the district and its major industry. He owns a vineyard, and he goes to bat for the major jobs producer in the district. And yet, at the same time, being "one of us" puts him into a tough ethics spot. The question I have is this: when does "one of us" cross that ethical boundary? Has Congressman Thompson crossed that line, or is he simply doing his job?