Given that, some time around the mid-1990s, the US has entered the brave new world of relatively unified partisan voting–relative to its own past, not to most democracies–it is hardly surprising that recent House of Representatives have used things like “self-executing” rules to pass bills.

I scarcely pay attention to the various noise machines that constitute “debate” in the US media, but some of it penetrates anyway, and I have been befuddled over all the flap over the use of such procedures.

Some on the right (which, to be clear, used the tactic when it was in power) even claim that what the Democrats are prepared to do today to pass their a bill is unconstitutional. Last time I checked, the constitution was pretty clear that each chamber of the legislature had blanket authority to do what it wants with regard to internal procedure. (In fact, it is that blanket authority upon which rests the right’s cherished–at least for now–Senate filibuster rule.)

I will count myself as among those who would like to see more, not less, use of self-executing rules. Along with similar (and similarly derided) rules like “fast track,” such rules are among the few devices that exist in the fragmented US political system for promoting collective accountability. By limiting amendments and debate, and likewise limiting individual accountability of members for difficult votes, self-executing rules and fast track enhance the capacity of parties to act–and to be held accountable at the next election. In other words, they are fundamental devices of democracy.

See also the good insights at PoliBlog (on the procedures and on the bill itself).

2 thoughts on “Self-execution

  1. MSS, I share your opinions about the desirability of party-line voting. I wonder, however, if we should not understate that institution’s contingency on at least two other factors.

    One is the change in composition of the congressional parties over the past few decades. You allude to the mid-1990s as a critical juncture, presumably because of Republican cohesion in the House during the days of the Contract With America. Election campaigns as early as the 1960s seem to have set the stage for that, making what we observe as party discipline more feasible to attain by reducing within-party ideological distance. In more recent years, the expulsion of New England Republicans from the House appears to have been a complementary (if not dependent) trend. It is hard to tell whether the root causes are institutional in nature. If we take the Southern Strategy as the critical node, they appear quite important, as it all comes down to winning presidential elections. If we take LBJ’s civil rights push as the critical node, to which the Southern Strategy was very much a reaction, we may have to emphasize the importance of mass politics.

    More proximately, we have to wonder about the importance of grass roots organization for observed party discipline. I get daily email alerts from both liberal and conservative activist groups, which vigorously sought to coordinate pressure on Members of Congress to go one way or the other on health care reform. Just yesterday, a note from Michael Moore carried the following title: “How the People in My District Got Stupak to Change His Mind — and Thus Saved the Health Care Bill.”

    This observed party discipline, if it is to become a trend, intensifies incentives for more fundamental reforms of American political institutions. I think this is (at least partly) why we both like it. To suggest its endogeneity to partisan realignment – and therefore slowly changing preferences among voters – might seem like arguing that the foundation for said reforms is not very stable. On the other hand, mass politics in America seem to be moving in a favorable (for us) direction. I don’t know; I leave that to the pollsters to sort out.

  2. Yes, Jack, I agree. Obviously we have not undergone institutional reform, so the changes in party cohesion are driven by other factors. As you mention, one of these is the change in presidential coalition building. And a key feature of presidentialized parties is that legislative parties become dependent upon the the presidential wing of the party. In some ways, the US is perhaps simply becoming a more “normal” presidential democracy (a theme I have written about before). The trends, as you note, were present well before the 1990s, but the 1968-2004 period represented a rather aberrant phase in which the party systems were highly separated (leading to divided government even when the presidency changed partisan hands in 1968 and 1980, and the odd sight of a change of partisanship of the presidency in 1992 at the same time as the incoming president’s party lost congressional seats).

    The puzzle for scholars of presidentialized party systems like me is to explain what took so long. I suppose the answer lies somewhere in the unusually high degree of “institutionalization” of the US legislature, which gave incumbents various tools with which to build up their “personal vote” and weather adverse partisan tides, as reflected in presidential elections. In fact, for the entire post-WWII period, “electoral separation of purpose”* reached its height in 1980, the year Reagan was elected. It reached its lowest point in 2004, the year Bush won his second term. (I do not have data yet for 2006 and 2008, but I doubt it went higher, even as it surely stayed far higher than it had been in the 1990s and earlier.)

    And, yes, there is an underlying dynamic in terms of the social base of the parties having shifted. But this has been crystallized in presidential contests, with campaigns such as those of Reagan, Bush II, and Obama exploiting opportunities to reshape their party’s electorate and win majorities.


    * Electoral separation of purpose is the average of all absolute values of the differences in presidential and legislative votes for a given party. It is by definition 0 in a parliamentary system, or in a presidential system in which ticket-splitting is impossible. It thus measures the extent to which the two “branches” of a party have identical or distinct electoral bases. See Chapter 5 of Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers.

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