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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Checks and Balances From Across the Street

One of the primary purposes of the separation of powers is to constrain federal power in order better to protect individual liberty.  Part of my book on decentralizing federal power examines whether locating so many important officials of the federal government in the same metropolitan area facilitates or undermines these ambitions to constrain.  As I wrote in a recent essay, co-location “narrows” federal power, and that narrowing can complicate the Madisonian ambition to have “opposite and rival interests” controlling the different branches. 

Let’s divide this up into epistemic and transaction costs dimensions.  First, co-locating multiple branches of the federal government can undermine the motive (the Madisonian “ambition” in Federalist 51) to constrain another branch of government.  Officials within the same metropolitan area across the branches tend to converge on issues as they are exposed to the same argument pools.  Even when that convergence does not transpire as a substantive matter, the personal and professional networks that are constructed within the same metropolitan area and across the branches can generate convergence motivated by reputational concerns.  This does not mean that every federal official in the same metropolitan area thinks the same way, regardless of partisan or ideological priors.  It does mean that there are fewer constituencies with motivations to constrain than when federal power is decentralized.  There are some examples of institutional design accounting for and trying to correct this.  When Congress worries that its decision will be dominated by insider interests shaping the executive and legislative branches (e.g. in closing military bases after the Cold War), it will sometimes relocate many of its legislative deliberations outside of Washington.

Second, transaction costs to collude are lower within the same metropolitan area.  The opportunity to subvert the separation of powers can be undermined by co-location.  Transportation costs for tangible goods have decreased substantially relative to transportation of human beings.  I can send you an electronic message in a second, but it still might take me 30 minutes to drive across Washington to meet you about it.  The result is that individuals still tend to meet more easily, more often, and more effectively from across the street than across the country.  The branches that are meant to be separated are located quite close to one another, making it easier for their officials to arrange meetings and share information.  When branches or offices are meant to be independent—like an Inspector General or federal court—it is even harder for them to be when they are across the street.

If one questions whether these mechanisms are present, consider the saga of Devin Nunes, the Republican in the House of Representatives chairing the House Intelligence Committee.  In a world of separation of parties, not powers, his motivation to constrain President Trump as a fellow Republican is decreased.  That motivation is decreased even more by the fact that he is a Republican going to the same events, talking to the same people, and building close personal relationships as the Trump White House—and indeed building these personal and professional relationships with those in the Trump White House.  His opportunity to subvert the separation of powers is even greater because he only needs to walk 2.1 miles to get to the White House to see what the Trump White House wants him to see, rather than having to travel across the country.

Posted by David Fontana on March 29, 2017 at 12:26 PM | Permalink


How much of the "uniparty state" effect is due to co-location, and how much is due to simply being in one place for so long? I suspect that moving the capital every 20 years or so would do at least as much to shed institutional sclerosis as term limits would, and no amendments required, just an act of Congress. Of course, moving the Senate to Texas, the House to Ohio, and the White House to Idaho would be even better. The need to keep them all in the same city may have been key to proper functioning when the Declaration complained about "places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant", but that concern is technologically obsolete.

Posted by: M. Rad. | Mar 30, 2017 8:26:55 AM

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