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).

Would the House adopt the Senate’s health bill?

One way that the Democratic Party can prevent a loss of the Massachusetts Senate seat from stopping their healthcare program from becoming law, without either reopening negotiations (e.g. trying to get one of the Maine Republicans to vote with them) or using hardball tactics (e.g. finding a procedure to pass the bill without needing 60 votes), is for the House simply to adopt the Senate bill. Then it would not require another vote in the Senate.

Would the House do that?

Expand the House

Peter Baker, writing in the New York Times, picks up a theme that has been prevalent here for a while: the US House needs to be expanded, specifically to improve the reapportionment process and to restore one-person-one-vote.*

Not counting a two-election increase when Alaska and Hawaii were added** the House size has not changed since the 1912 election. Back then the US had about 95 million people, or around a third what it has today!

The House used to be expanded periodically to track population size (see graph at the second-linked item). Why not now? As the NYT notes, the US judicial system is about to be asked that question.

Some advocates of increased House size have suggested a House of over 1,000 Representatives. That’s ridiculous–and hardly helpful to the cause. The cube-root law (again, see second link) would suggest 620-660. But, really, even 600, or 550, would help restore Representativeness considerably.

Update: Nate Silver weighs in, but suggests focusing energies on expanding and reforming the Senate. I’m all for that, too.

* To one of the arms of the federal government, anyway.

** That is, those states came into the union between censuses, and a seat was added for each. With the subsequent reapportionment, those states’ Representatives came at the expense of voters in other states, in order to return the House at 435.

High speed stimulus

In a bicameral system, when one chamber proposes to spend two billion on some line item and the other proposes to spend zero, what do you expect the inter-cameral conference to propose?

One billion?

Good guess, but when it comes to high-speed rail in the recent US “stimulus” bill, that answer is a bit off.

The final bill authorized $8b.

In case that was too subtle, let me make it a bit more clear:


We can thank the third, uni-personal, legislative chamber for this: It was something Obama wanted. (Thanks, Barack!)

See National Corridors Initiative for details (including chamber comparisons on other rail and transit items, and a nifty map of approved corridors).

A tip of the engineer’s (or, rather, the Superintendent’s) cap to Sephen Karlson, whose post on rail in the stimulus has many other good links on this topic).

Combined with California voters’ passage of Prop 1A in November, this makes modern train service more real than it has been in a long time.

(I know eight billion is not really all that much. But you have to start somewhere!)

Finally, to those who would cry ‘pork’ upon knowing of spending on this, or other “pet,” projects advocated by specific lawmakers for their regions, the Washington Post notes that a spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid (who wants a maglev train between Las Vegas and Anaheim or Los Angeles) claims that the transportation secretary “will have complete flexibility as to which program he uses to allocate the funds.” While the delegation of such authority to the transportation department does not guarantee the use of technical (merit) rather than political criteria, it makes it much more likely. In any case, if the bill does not allocate money to specific projects, or require congress or the executive to do so, it is not pork. At least not at this stage.

Waxman ousts Dingell

Good news here.

From Jeff Mitchell at PolitickerCA:

Handing California and western environmental policy advocates a big win, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman wrested control of the House Energy and Commerce Committee from Michigan Congressman John Dingell Thursday morning.Waxman won the gavel fight for control of the committee over the more senior Dingell by a vote of 137 to 122.

‘Polarization’ and ‘Responsible Parties’

Simon Jackman quoting a press item on a former student, Sean Theriault, notes that the US “Congress is the most polarized it has been in a century.”

A quote from Theriault states that “The electoral campaign has infiltrated the legislative process.”

Interesting choice of words, there–infiltrating. As Larry Bartels suggests in a comment to Jackman’s blog post:

Incidentally, here is the question on political parties from this year’s American Politics qualifying exam at Princeton: “In 1950, American political scientists wanted a more responsible two-party system. Now they have it. How have they reacted? What light does recent scholarship shed on the empirical assertions and normative commitments animating earlier scholarly writing on political parties and the American party system?”

The rest of Bartels’ comment suggests that if one were to answer the question, one would focus on, among other things, changes (if any) on the ability of presidents to get their way, as well as the tendency for party-line voting in congress.

I agree that these are among the best indicators of whether the US has reached something like ‘responsible party government’ (and whether, if so, it might be here to stay). However, I do not accept the premise of the question: that the US indeed has now what (some) political scientists in 1950 wanted, a responsible 2-party system.

If the “bailout” vote didn’t reveal what 6 years of single-party control already should have made clear, let me give it a try: The US, even at its peak of party polarization and executive-legislative constituency overlap, ((Here I am referring to the concept of Electoral Fusion of Purpose, which is an indicator of the extent to which executive and legislative candidates (or lists) get their electoral support from the same geographical constituencies. The index maxes out at 1.00, with total overlap. If it were 0 (and empirically it never is, only rarely falling below .5) it would mean that all of the president’s votes came from places the legislators of the party got no votes, and vice versa. For US Republicans in 2004, the Fusion index reached .915 (and Democrats .885). By contrast, in 1964, both parties were around .6 and even as recently as 1980, they were under .8. (Electoral Fusion of Purpose is a theme of one chapter of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Parties, by David J. Samuels and Matthew S. Shugart (Cambridge, forthcoming).)) does not have a ‘responsible’ party system. Under the imaginary import of the idealized UK system, it would make no sense that ‘earmarks’ would go up precisely under partisan polarization and unified government. Nor would it make sense that the leaders of the parties (who in any case would not need to bargain with one another under a UK-style ‘responsible’ 2-party system) could not deliver sufficient support on a critical piece of ‘emergency’ legislation until they spread around copious amounts of pork.

The party system that has emerged in the last decade or so is the worst of both worlds: More frequent party-line voting (but not–refreshingly!– on the bailout), yet rampant ducking for cover through district- and interest-group-focused amendments for which a single ruling party as a whole can’t be held responsible. I am pretty sure that is not what the 1950 APSA committee had in mind. And I am just as sure that what they had in mind is out of step with the institutional structure of the system they were attempting to graft it on to.

[The last two paragraphs are from my comment to Jackman’s blog post.]