Shutdowns elsewhere?

Do other democracies ever suffer “shutdowns” of their governments due to failure to agree on a budget? I would offer a tentative “no”, at least in recent decades, because most political systems either have mechanisms forcing a change in government or a new election (in the case of parliamentary systems) or provisions that define a “reversion” other than (essentially, though not literally) zero.

As Erik Voeten, writing at the Monkey Cage, noted the case of Belgium, which in 2010 and 2011 was without a democratically legitimated government for 589 days. “Yet, budgets were passed, government workers were paid, and government services continued to be provided.”

In many other presidential systems (including those of many US states), the powers of the president include provisions to establish limits on what the congress can amend in budgets, and/or privilege the executive proposal in some way. Others–both presidential and parliamentary–have provisions for what would be, in Washington parlance, “automatic continuing resolutions”.

These various provisions would seem to make anything like what has happened this week in the USA–the eighteenth such incident since 1976–unlikely or even impossible.

Gary Cox, also at the Monkey Cage, offers an overview of the different sorts of rules used elsewhere to prevent shutdowns. He has a graph indicating the increased use around the world of what he terms, executive-favoring reversions. He also argues that the reversionary provision in place in the USA, whereby budgets go to zero until there is continuing or renewed authorization, is the “worst” kind “except for all the rest.”

I don’t agree with this argument. Normatively, it seems desirable to keep things going at the most recently approved levels until such time as all who are needed to agree can come up with some new level. Or so it seems to me. I also disagree with Cox’s point that “parliamentary regimes avoid the inefficiencies of government shutdowns, at the price of government instability.” As Gary certainly knows, actual government instability is by no means the norm in parliamentary systems. And that is so even if we replace the rather loaded term, “instability” by the rather more descriptive, (low) “cabinet durability”. Yet I don’t think failure to pass a budget is all that common in parliamentary systems, precisely because the consequences are substantial. But when it happens, there is the dual response of (1) an automatic continuing resolution (caretaker provisions) and (2) either a newly formed government or an early election. ((As in recent Dutch experience.)) These are not small points for the broader point Cox is addressing.

In all the online discussion occurring about the comparative politics of these matters (which is great to see, by the way!), Max Fisher makes reference to the Australian crisis of 1975 as a case of “shutdown”. He suggests it was only due to Australia’s continued acceptance of the British monarchy that the particular solution–the Governor General firing the Prime Minister when the latter could not obtain supply in the Senate–was possible. I am not sure about the specifics of his interpretation ((Some readers of this blog know the case well!)), but I would note that recourse to government replacement–and often, early elections– are inherent to parliamentary models, whether in the Commonwealth or not. Presidential systems, on the other hand, must either endure periodic deadlocks or have other constitutional or statutory mechanisms for giving privilege over budgets to either the executive, the congress, or the status-quo levels of spending. And it is probably safe to say that all currently active presidential constitution that are newer than the US–which is to say all of them–have differentiated budgets from ordinary legislation precisely to generate a reversionary outcome other than a shutdown.

Marginal districts and “pork” allocations: Australia 2013 edition

“Pork-barrel” politics, strictly defined, is the geographic targeting of policy benefits by a governing or legislative majority, for the political gain of that majority. In comparative porkology, we expect that political systems differ in which geographic areas it is that get targeted. In single-seat district systems, where small changes in votes in a few marginal constituencies can make the difference between one party or coalition governing versus another, we can expect targeting of the marginal constituencies. At least we can expect that if there is a centralized party organization making policy decisions on behalf of the collective interest of the party (i.e., winning elections). Where parties are non-hierarchical and legislative organization more decentralized, it might be the safest seats, rather than the more marginal ones, that receive most of the attention. ((See, for example, Fiona McGillivray, 1997. “Party Discipline as a Determinant of Endogenous Formation of Tariffs”, American Journal of Political Science 41, 2 (April): 584-607. She shows a tendency of trade protection in Canada (disciplined parties, parliamentary government) to be directed at marginal districts, whereas in the USA most of it goes to safe districts.))

Australia, which has a general election on 7 September, should have a tendency towards porcine spending on marginal seats, given that one of the two legislative chambers is elected exclusively in single-seat districts and it is a parliamentary democracy that encourages collective action by parties. ((However much the ruling Labor Party has spent its current period in power attempting to refute this latter theory of collective party action.)) An article on alleges this is so: “Follow the money trail: Pork barrels point to campaign hot spots.”

The news item offers a list of Australia’s ten most marginal constituencies, and what local improvements the ruling Labor Party and opposition Coalition are promising. Example: “Tony Abbott [Coalition leader] has pledged an upgrade for the Great Ocean Road, which happens to run through the nation’s most marginal electorate.”


An analysis of campaign pledges in Australia’s 10 most marginal seats reveals Labor has splashed more than $105 million cash around the ten most marginal sets.

The Liberals have pledged $70 million.

This pattern would certainly fit the theory. However, in in comparative terms, this seems rather petty. Besides, much (maybe all?) of the evidence offered here is in the form of campaign promises. Fundamentally, campaign promises aren’t pork. Pork is in the actual provision of geographically targeted spending.

Do Australian parties have a record of following through on their commitments to marginal constituencies when they win elections? Actual pork is about being able to claim credit for improvements delivered when in power, not merely promising to do stuff if (re-)elected.

Finally, an observation: from the news story, it would seem that Australian parties’ campaign promises are remarkably specific as to individual projects and their locations.

Guns and gangs

Miguel Centellas, a political scientist at the University of Mississippi, wrote the following on his Teaching (Comparative) Politics blog. I found the piece (so to speak!) interesting and provocative. With Miguel’s permission, I am reposting it in full here.

All of what follows here is written by Miguel.

I’ve heard a lot of arguments about guns lately (and I’ve engaged in some debates). One thing always bothered me about most “pro-gun” arguments, however. See, here’s the thing: I’m not opposed to guns per se. Both my grandpa and dad were hunters (and I always wanted to go). I’ve shot guns of various kinds, enjoyed it, and was good at it (I have certificates to prove it). But growing up in Michigan, where hunting was a big deal, and where my grandpa and dad (and uncles, neighbors, etc.) went hunting, I rarely ever saw a gun. My grandpa kept his (a rifle, some shotguns, and a pearl handled .22 pistol) locked up in some remote corner of the basement. They were never in any way “readily accessible.” Someone could’ve broken into his house and he’d be helpless, his guns a flight of stairs away in a dark corner. I only ever saw my father’s gun once (a classic Mauser bolt action). That was my experience with “legal” gun ownership. It’s also what I expect of people who advocate “responsible” gun ownership.

But, recently, the arguments I hear are about self protection and the right to defend against tyranny. The arguments often come from people concerned with gun violence in society, but who believe they need guns to protect themselves become they don’t trust anyone else to do it. And the arguments also come from people distrust the government, who don’t think it represents them, and who think the police are simply the armed and brutal hand of a distant regime that seeks to put them down.

The problem is, I recognize all those arguments. Because I also grew up in a rust belt city in Michigan. So I’ve heard those arguments before. They came from gangbangers. Young, angry men who lived in fear of violence and needed weapons to protect their lives, their property, and their “turf.” They also didn’t see the government (and certainly not the police) as someone they could trust. They were cynical about governmental authority.

Ironically, in many ways, these gangbangers were ultimate libertarians (of a certain stripe). They were engaged in the free market, often selling products that were unregulated—and resisting any regulations. They took it upon themselves to protect themselves and their families—they didn’t call 911. They were self-made men (and a few women). They were rugged individualists, relying only on themselves. Gangbangers don’t have Social Security accounts. If their business fails, they don’t get government bailouts. In short, they fend for themselves in a harsh world.

Most of the gangbangers I knew in high school were regularly armed. We all knew it. But they weren’t constantly shooting up the place. If you asked them, they would always insist that their gun was for protection. It was a deterrent from being jumped or mugged or even shot at by rival gangbangers. And perhaps it worked. I remember one time in particular when my brother (who was not in a gang) was walking home from middle school and he was about to get jumped. He was saved by a classmate (who was a gangbanger) who simply walked up, asked what was going on, and unzipped his jacket to show his “piece.” The message was clear: Sam’s “my boy,” don’t try this. Sam got saved from being jumped because a 13-year-old classmate had a handgun.

So that’s my experience with guns. The people who were “responsible” gun owners kept their guns locked up and occasionally went hunting. The “criminals” used them for self protection and walked around armed.

So you can understand my recent confusion. When I argue about gun restrictions and people point to their need to walk around armed to be safe. Especially when it’s accompanied by posturing. You know what I mean, the ubiquitous picture of some guy (it’s usually a guy) posing with his Glock or AR-15 or whatever, looking tough. Because what I see is just a gangbanger posing with his piece, looking tough, and bragging about how “nobody better try to jump me!” while also denouncing a government that’s “out to get me and my kind.” It just reminds me too much of my local gangbangers. I mean, they were the only people I knew that always bragged about their guns and wanted everyone to know they were “carrying.” They see themselves as “patriots.” I just see another gangbanger.

Livni loses Kadima leadership

In the Kadima leadership primary, current leader of the opposition Tzipi Livni lost to intraparty challenger Shaul Mofaz.

Livni did not just lose. She was trounced, getting only 37% of the vote in a two-person race.

OK, my party-historian readers, how many cases of sitting party leaders of major parties have ever lost an internal leadership contest that badly?

On the question of participation in these sorts of internal leadership elections–which we were discussing in a Canadian context earlier in the week–the turnout for Kadima’s primary was 38.2%. ((There were 95,000 eligible, compared to 74,000 in the previous primary, when Livni narrowly beat Mofaz.))

Mofaz will now become the party’s third leader in just over six years since its founder, then-PM Ariel Sharon, was incapacitated.

What will Livni do now? It is hard to see her hanging around the caucus of a party that just humiliated her.

Australia’s carbon bill passes House

The Australian House of Representatives has passed the government’s carbon tax bill by a vote of 74-72. To paraphrase Joe Biden, this is a B.F.D.

The measure still must pass the Senate, but there the Labor government and Greens combine for a large majority, so it is not in doubt. The House, where Labor has a minority and there is only one Green MP, was where the result was uncertain.

The Green leader, Bob Brown, has claimed that his party was right to block the previous Labor PM Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme, because the now-passed measures offer “so much more” than the previous proposal.

On the other side, opposition leader Tony Abbot has made a “pledge in blood” to repeal it if his Coalition wins the next election. Brown, the Green, does not think the threat is credible. “We’ll be winning more lower house seats, and we’ll be winning a stronger hold in the Senate,” he predicted.

New Zealand party positioning

With an election on 26 November (and most of the country currently distracted by rugby), the pre-electoral legislative business is offering a good window into how the parties are positioning themselves for the campaign.

The current government is led by the National Party, which won a plurality of seats in the 2008 election. It is supported by three smaller parties, the farther-right Act, the one-seat United Future (sort of centrist, sort of social-conservative), and the ethnic Maori Party.

Act is all about pushing National farther right, and it is because of that Act goal that National took on Maori as partners, even though it could have had a majority without Maori. Needing to avoid straying too far from the national (small-n) median, the National Party would not want to be overly dependent upon the fringe right.

Two recent press releases from Act sum up its position well. In one, the party claims credit for protecting rights and freedoms–emphasizing its libertarian side:

ACT Parliamentary Leader John Boscawen today confirmed he had negotiated from the Government major changes in the Criminal Procedure (Reform and Modernisation) Bill that would mean the continued protection of rights and freedoms that New Zealanders have held dear for generations.

“I had fundamental objections to the Bill but after successful negotiations with Justice Minister Simon Power all my objections have now been addressed,” Mr Boscawen said.

It then goes on to list a series of specific concessions it claims to have won in exchange for its support.

In another, it differentiates itself from the National party over the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). A little background is in order. This program was originally enacted late in the previous parliament, in the run-up to the 2008 election, when Labour headed a minority government. That government was backed by United Future and the New Zealand First Party of Winston Peters. ((A hard party, and leader, to characterize. Sometimes, based on media stories, I actually wonder if his name was not officially The Mercurial Winston Peters. The party has a constituency that is anti-immigrant and pro “law and order”, and disproportionately elderly. It did not make it back into parliament in 2008 and probably will not this time, either.)) At the time United Future would not support the ETS, and so the government worked out some concessions demanded by the Greens, who were not formal partners to the government. The Greens issued their own press release then, touting how they had improved the bill (from the standpoint of their constituents).

Then when National won, it immediately stayed the implementation of the ETS. It later negotiated changes with the Maori (who won the right to earn credits from planting trees on tribal lands). Act would not vote in favor of any changes to the ETS. They believe climate change is a hoax, and want the law scrapped. This week they reminded their supporters of this position.

ACT New Zealand Parliamentary Leader John Boscawen today called on the Government to drop the pretence and scrap the Emissions Trading Scheme altogether after the ETS Review Panel report recommended delaying the introduction of the energy, transport, industrial and agricultural sectors into the scheme.

“Today’s report confirms what ACT has been saying all along; the ETS is a disaster and should be scrapped. […]

“The report today does a great job of highlighting the scheme’s flaws but does little to remedy them. Instead of delaying the inevitable the Government should have the courage of its convictions and do what ACT has called for all along – scrap the ETS,” Mr Boscawen said.

Meanwhile, the National Party and the Greens have been negotiating on areas of mutual interest. That they would ever work together may seem odd, as they represent opposite ends of the political space, leaving aside Act. However, multiparty politics, especially with minority government, opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities for policy progress in specific areas of overlap.

The two parties have announced a deal on a bill to regulate natural health products. The bill passed its first reading in parliament earlier today. It was a shared policy initiative agreed between these two parties under a Memorandum of Understanding. This is something far short of a formal government-support partnership, but a process that permits the Greens to pass policy of interest to their constituency even from the opposition. As for National, presumably they saw a benefit from advancing the safety and reliability of this sector of the market and could never get Act to go along. ((Notwithstanding that its party name originally meant the Alliance of Consumers and Taxpayers, and this is a consumer safety measure. Act has a low-tax, low-regulation ideology.)) Greens have long looked for chances to show that they are not an appendage of Labour, able to work only with that party. Here is one concrete example.

The Greens have a press release about the natural health bill featured very prominently on the party web site as of today. National also has a press release on it, but rather less prominently. The statements are subtly different, with Greens emphasizing the “stand alone regulator” to deal with natural health products coming “more and more… from countries with a poor safety record” and the benefits to “small business” (presumably natural supplement retailers are part of their constituency). National emphasizes “public assurances about the safety and efficacy of natural health products” and concluding by noting the “three-year transitional period to assist the industry in adjusting to the proposed requirements”.

As to the Greens’ dealing with National, the main opposition party, Labour, has attacked the smaller left party as being “more Blue than Green“, as reported in the NZ Herald, 14 Sept. (Blue is National’s color.) The specific issue referenced is Green support for the government’s environmental protection plan for potential offshore oil and gas fields. ((The Exclusive Economic Zone and Continental Shelf (Environmental Effects) Bill passed its second reading with support from Maori Party, Act, United Future, as well as the Greens. The Greens have not committed yet to supporting it all the way through the legislative process, depending on its final provisions.)) Labour, with polls showing it having no realistic chance of forming the next government, is clearly trying to out flank the Greens and hold off further losses to the them. Polls show the Green Party may score a record high in the upcoming election.

Finally, going back to an old story, as the government was formed following the close 2005 election, I posed the question, “Did the NZ government agreement promise pork?” I concluded no, because the agreement did not promise to the United Future that the “Transmission Gully” road would be built to relieve traffic around leader Peter Dunne’s district. It only promised a review of the project. Well, according to two items on the National website this week (1, 2), the project is still under review. So not much pork for Dunne to claim credit for in this election–only that, six years later, we still have the government looking in to it!

The New Zealand campaign and legislative sessions afford an excellent laboratory to watch multiparty politics, policy-making, and party positioning in action!

High speed rail and politics

It is often alleged that projects to develop high-speed rail systems are cases of “pork-barrel” politics. Lots of money, sexy projects, and politicians can’t resist “targeting” the spending to areas of benefit for their reelection campaigns.

With respect to the funds to assist high-speed rail that were in the “stimulus” package early in Obama’s presidency, I addressed this charge: as best I could tell from the information available, it was not pork, at least at the legislative stage.

On the other hand, I have heard allegations that certain lines and stations in Japan’s system are “porky” in that they were built in regions that supported key Liberal Democratic Party politicians, but had less obvious merit in terms of the coherence of the rail system itself. ((This does not mean that the shinkansen project as a whole has not been beneficial, only that certain parts of it may have had political, rather than technical, criteria behind their selection as priorities for spending.))

The distinction here is in the extent to which a public project is sited in a way consistent with programmatic criteria, on the one hand, or for political objectives, on the other. There is not always a bright line between programmatic decisions and pork-barrel decisions in individual cases. Sometimes the objectives are even aligned! Yet conceptually, the distinction is fairly clear. If the decision regarding where to place a line (for example) are based on objective criteria, where some panel of nonpartisan experts scores various competing proposals in order to determine which ones have the most merit, it’s not pork. If politicians determine where to put a line based on the value of that line for their party (or individual politicians’) constituencies, it’s pork. ((Note that this implies that the criteria to evaluate programmatic vs. porcine policy are thus largely ones of the process of decision-making, and certainly not normative judgments of whether one likes a given policy choice or not!))

So the politics of a proposed high-speed system in the UK are interesting. Normally, at least in US discussions of pork-barrel politics, we assume that projects get sited based on their providing benefits to the districts of politicians who are strategically positioned to influence the choice of routes and stations. We do not normally think that the electorally secure politicians whose districts the lines will traverse will oppose the project, while the project will mainly benefit locations not currently represented by politicians in the governing party or coalition.

Yet the latter pattern is what we observe in the UK currently, as The Independent reported on 26 June.

David Cameron is pinning his hopes of an outright victory at the next election by pushing ahead with a controversial high-speed rail project. Ministers are convinced the expensive rail link will give Tories the breakthrough in northern cities that they need to gain a majority.

The PM is risking the wrath of the Home Counties, where 14 Tory constituencies with rock-solid majorities are affected by the building of the £33bn line.

The news article goes on to note that the high-speed rail line may cost the Conservative party votes in these “rock-solid” districts, but the party will win them in the 2015 election, anyway. The project will be popular enough in northern areas where the party is targeting many seats for possible pick-up in the next election, so there will be a net gain for the party.

At least within the classic US frame, pork is about rewarding incumbents for their incumbency, and rewarding voters or interest groups for their support of the incumbent. But apparently that is not the case in the UK, for this project.

The difference lies in the highly party-centered nature of parliamentary politics, UK style. As opposed to the more decentralized parties and candidate-centered politics of the US presidential system, in the UK politically based decisions on where to build projects are driven by collective party needs, instead of by needs of individual politicians.

This is exactly the pattern we should expect in a political system like that of the UK. If there is pork–and generally it is assumed that there is some just about everywhere, but not a lot in the UK–it should be based on party criteria. If the article is accurate in its portrayal of the politics of high-speed rail, party pork is precisely what we are seeing. Top governing party leaders propose to spend on a project that may earn the party votes in areas it needs to win the next election, even if the project is opposed by some of the party’s own secure incumbent MPs.