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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

How Polarization Cooked Congress's Pork

The 112th has been a historic Congress, for a number of well-reported reasons.  Here are two.

First, Congress, led by the Republican House but followed by Democrats in the Senate, eliminated earmarks.  While a few legislators have found work-arounds, for the most part the practice of dedicating federal revenues to local projects was stamped out.  Furthermore, the ban has been made permanent (formally at least).

Second, this Congress, like the last one, is hyper-polarized.  According to the National Journal's analysis of voting records, there is no Democrat more conservative the most liberal Republican, in the Senate, and there are only a few House Republicans  with more liberal voting records than the most conservative Democrat (including Ron Paul, as his iconoclastic preferences sometimes gets classified as liberal.)  And the ideological distance between the parties' median position has never been widerAs Keith Poole notes, "“This is the most polarized Congress since the end of Reconstruction."

What hasn't been mentioned is that these two phenomena are likely causally related.  Put simply, if you want to know who killed earmarks Clue style, it was polarization in the House with powerful Whip.

Following Ken Arrow, it is widely known that legislatures have a fundamental problem -- there is no necessary unique result in any given issue due to cycling.  Further, what one might call game theoretic difficulties might lead a legislature to accept Pareto inferior results according to the preferences of all Members.  As Barry Weingast and John Ferejohn have shown, distributive pork-barrel politics is a method of organizing a legislature.  Even if all Members, say, prefer lower taxes to higher taxes and more spending, there can be stable equilibrium of everyone agreeing to more spending because each member most prefers spending in their own district.  The basic intuition is like a Prisoner's Dilemma, and a norm of distribution can form where each Member supports every other Member's pork project because they fear being left out when their own project comes up.  These universal log-rolling coalitions can be a stable equilibrium.  

However, strong political parties provide a fundamentally different method for organizing a legislature.  As described in the work of Mat McCubbins, Roderick Kewiet, Gary Cox and others, some subset of a legislature (the party caucus) decide to give a leader (the Speaker) the power to determine the voting order, which for cycling reasons, can determine the outcome.  Further, they give the leadership power to provide selective incentives (committee seats, campaign party funds) to whip votes into line, avoiding the need for universal log-rolling coalitions.  That is, the caucus delegates power to the leadership to end cycling and fix deals between members.  

Why do Members give the leadership the power to set the voting order even though it sometimes results in them not being able to offer amendments that would be in their interest? It has to do with the leader's incentives.   Being Speaker of the House is way more fun than being a backbencher, and so the Speaker has the incentive to maximize the joint electoral benefits to the caucus.  They do so by organizing votes in ways that enhance the value of the party brand that all Members share (and appears on the ballot).  This provides an incentive to propose generally beneficial policies rather than district specific ones, as such benefits would not enhance the brand across the electorate (although parties do slant benefits towards districts you can win or think they can win, as Thad Kousser and Gerald Gamm show in this paper)

You can now see the explanation.  As parties become stronger, the need for pork as a way to organize the legislature, get budgets passed, etc. grows weaker.   Polarization got stronger, meaning that parties found it easier to organize the legislature and needed pork less.

This also explains why Republicans rather than Democrats first pushed for a ban on earmarks.  The Republicans are most coherent at the national level, both ideologically and organizationally.  Democrats in the Senate, as the hubbub over the pork projects that were part of the final negotiations over the ACA, still need pork sometimes to grease the legislative wheels.  (And notably the most famous pork proposals like the "Louisiana Purchase" or the "Nebraska compromise" went not to core partisans but to wobbly centrists.)   This, more than ideology explains why Republicans were willing to forego legislative direction of funds even under a Democratic President.  

Next week, I will discuss how the absence of organized competitive parties in big cities leads to land use rules that are too restrictive.


Posted by David Schleicher on May 8, 2012 at 09:17 AM | Permalink


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Interesting post. 2 thoughts:
1) Clearly, an important cause of increased partisanship has been the rise of well-funded issue groups (the ones that do report cards on things like how strong a candidate is on birth control or gun rights). From my perspective as a liberal D, this appears to have become almost an existential issue on the other side of the aisle, as Republicans who voted against NRA positions or in particular for any tax increase of any kind have repeatedly been subject to very tough attacks (that have often led to successful primary challenges). Ideological purity is a great thing if you believe that the relevant issues are not ever worth compromising on. But it does make bipartisanship basically impossible. As we saw during the debt ceiling and reconciliation debates, Republicans today are literally incapable of voting for bills that contain any major tax increases, EVEN WHEN those bills, in the aggregate, contain far more things they like (cuts to entitlements, doctors invasively probing vaginas, etc.) than dislike, and are far "better" a deal than anything else they can get.

2) Chris Hayes (now on MSNBC) gave a presentation last year arguing that a lot of the problems in Congress (particularly in the Senate) are because of the existence of longstanding informal rules, which are now being exploited/arbitraged because they are not formal. So the filibuster/60 vote threshold was informally always intended to be a rare (and divisive) event, but there were no rules in place to ensure that outcome, only unwritten "rules of the game" (much like in baseball). Likewise with impeachments in the House, etc.

Under this theory, a lot of the partisanship we now see might be attributed to: a) term limits, and b) the prevalence of "wave" elections, in which huge numbers of longstanding incumbents are replaced by freshmen, thus eliminating the institutional memory of(as well as adherence to) the "unwritten rules of the game".

Posted by: DD | May 9, 2012 10:33:33 AM

Interesting take. I just saw a new paper by Todd Zywicki in which he considers whether the constitutional structure of the Senate might have been different had the Framers anticipated partisan elections.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | May 8, 2012 7:23:34 PM

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