Homeland security, federalism, and bicameralism

In October, 2005, I commented on the intercameral differences within the Republican Congress on the question of federal grants for “homeland security.” The dispute–with the Senate favoring most of the money being divided equally among the states and the House favoring a high percentage of the disbursements being based on insured risk–is the stuff of classic bicameral policy disagreement. Insured risk tends to be roughly correlated with population, and so it is hardly a surprise that the House would prefer such a determination of where most of the money should go. The Senate, on the other hand, with its equal representation of even the smallest state, would be predicted to find the “risk” from terrorism to be about the same in Wyoming as it is in New York, and indeed that is the logic–the political logic–of its formula.

Now, fast forward to 2007. We had a change in party control, from both houses being Republican to both being Democratic. And at the moment, the chambers are once again bargaining over the formula for the distribution of homeland security grants. The proposals by each chamber again reveal the institutional biases of each chamber. But when compared to the 2005 intercameral bargaining, the 2007 proposals show even more starkly the difference between the parties and their constituencies, on this issue.

Here I compare the House and Senate proposals at each of these moments of bargaining:

    2005 bills (Republican majorities)

    House: 25% of funds distributed equally among states–but state must show need; most of rest allocated based on risk

    Senate: 75% of funds distributed equally among states; 25% allocated according to risk

    2007 bills (Democratic majorities)

    House: 12.5% of funds distributed equally among states; most of rest allocated based on risk

    Senate: 22.5% of funds distributed equally among states; most of rest according to risk

Wow. Good stuff!

Of course, one critical factor here is the relative sizes of the states each party draws its main support base from. That is, the parties’ positions (holding constant the chamber) are partly shaped by the same factor that separates the chambers (holding constant the parties). Consider the following breakdown of the populations of the states represented in each of these two Senates. The first column is the number of states (with half a state in each party row whenever the state delegation is split), and then the cumulative population of those states (or half states).

    Before 2006 election
    54 Reps 27.5 138,079,342
    46 Dems 22.5 142,824,157

    After 2006 election
    49 Reps 24.5 118,950,125
    51 Dems 25.5 161,953,374

Note that the Republican states constituted the minority of the population even when the Republicans held the (spurious) partisan majority of the Senate. (This a theme I have covered before, in a somewhat more refined analysis with electoral data and cool graphs!)

President Bush has threatened to veto this bill over several other provisions, especially that which would extend collective bargaining rights to baggage screeners and other employees who were barred such rights when DHS was established.

We may see the first successful override vote in the House during the W years. The bill passed 299-128. However, the vote was 60-38 in the Senate. These results means a lot of Republicans in each house went with the majority, even if the non-democratic chamber will be able to sustain the minority veto in this case. What a difference it makes which party is setting the congressional agenda!


My main source on the differences in the bills in 2007 was an article by Chris Strohm for Congress Daily. Sources on the 2005 bills are discussed at the previous planting (first link above).

In calculating state populations by party delegation, independents are counted as if members of the party with which they caucus (here, all Democrat: Jeffords, Sanders, Lieberman); population numbers are based on 2000 census.

On the specific issue of union rights for baggage screeners, I highly recommend the thread sparked by Matthew Yglesias in early March. The discussion in the comments contains pretty much the whole gamut of hypotheses about policy-making!

0 thoughts on “Homeland security, federalism, and bicameralism

  1. “… despite their differing traditions the EU and the United States have something in common: size. Is it possible to maintain effective government that is also sensibly democratic in countries or continents that contain more than 300 million people?… One Congressional delegation tries to eliminate the dollar bill; the other seeks to terminate the dollar coin. Cue stalemate. Sure, this isn’t the gravest issue facing the United States. Nevertheless, it is indicative of the problems size brings. Every interest is met by a counter-interest. Sectionalism triumphs…”

    – Alex Massie, “Size Matters: Dysfunctional Government Edition”, Spectator blogs (Wed 8 Feb 2012), http://tinyurl.com/8xa6j9o.

  2. Alex Massie’s essay is something of a throwaway essay, but it makes important points that should be more widely debated.

    The idea that the bigger the area and population covered by a government, the more despotic and less democratic it will be, was first proposed by Aristotle. And he was correct, the relative democracy and egalitarianism AMONG NON-SLAVES one finds in Athens and other Greek cities tends to vanish in the Macedonian monarchies, ancient Rome, or even Athens, Sparta, and Syracuse themselves during their hegemonic phases.

    Alot of this problem was resolved by the medieval idea of representative government, and getting rid of slavery (in Europe, as opposed to European colonies, an accomplishment of the Middle Ages) didn’t hurt, but its plausible that repersentative government breaks down for various reasons if its attempted on a continental scale. Germany, or maybe Japan, may be the largest country where representative institutions will not be put under stress by the sheer size of the place.

    However, there is the problem of defense. World War II showed that even large mid-sized states such as France and Poland could be overrun by modern armies within months, but this was not the case of continental sized countries such as Russia and China. So for small and mid-sized countries, representative institutions are less susceptible towards being undermined internally, but are more vulnerable to external attack. Much of the impetus behind the European Union, though the elites tend to keep quiet about it, seems to have to reduce the dependency of European countries on the United States. And when the United States was established, there is evidence that the framers worried about being attacked by a revanchanist European power if they didn’t unite.

  3. As a citizen of the only nation on the planet whose territory includes an entire continent I fid this fascinating reading.

  4. My guess is that by “big”, Massie means population as well as area. Both create problems for representative theory.

  5. Alan, the United States has a bigger land area than Australia, and over ten times the population. Brazil has a bigger land area and much bigger population than Australia. And both of these are true even more so with India.

  6. @Ed, really? I had no idea!

    More seriously the Massie article confuses particular institutional features with general characteristics. If the US Senate functioned now as it did in in the 1960s when the filibuster required actual speech rather than a liberum veto would Massie be writing that the US is proof that a continental empire can run efficiently?

  7. Most people seem to agree that U.S. governance has gotten into a bad way these days, though they dispute the reasons for this. But the normal view is that U.S. institution throughout its history worked fairly well and then recently problems have developed.

    Personally, I think its the other way around. On the federal level, U.S. institutions worked unhistorically well between 1933 and the late 1960s. Before the 1930s, it didn’t matter as much because the action was with the states, though there was a bad breakdown in the mid-nineteenth century. Its the combination of creaky federal institutions with a powerful federal government that is novel.

    But this is really a theme that would require an entire blog post, if not an entire blog.

    On the specific issue of the filibusters, there were plenty of them in the 1950s and 1960s, and they stalled civil rights legislation until pro-civil rights politicians (northern Democrats and liberal Republicans) got the required supermajority in the Senate. It was a problem then, too, with repercussions for a big section of the American population, and as I noted this was during a period where federal institutions tended to work unusually well.

  8. There is a difference between filibusters that did not work, and ultimately the civil rights bills did pass in the 1960s, and the new theory that all decisions of the US Senate must be unanimous. Or rather that all decisions of the US Senate that are opposed by the Republicans must be unanimous.

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