Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Turning "Republicans and Democrats into Americans"

Brendan Nyhan flagged this recent article by former Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-OK) in the Atlantic. The article's title, "How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans," is really obnoxious, suggesting that Republicans and Democrats are not already sufficiently American when they advocate for the things they care about. But I have no idea if Edwards actually came up with the title, and the rest of the post is pretty thoughtful, so I'm going to try to give it its due.

The piece has a clear insidery perspective; Edwards was clearly bothered by partisan divisiveness during his time in Congress and doesn't like what he's seen in the two decades since. While I am a longstanding defender of parties and partisanship, I am sympathetic to concerns raised by members of Congress about such divisiveness. No one likes divisiveness in the workplace. Members of Congress -- most of them, anyway -- put in long hours trying to advance issues they and their constituents feel are important, and it can't be fun to see people opposing you just because of the "D" or "R" that appears next to your name on the ballot or to have people questioning your motives all the time. So while I believe that parties are very useful for voters and for legislators, I certainly understand why an experienced congressman (particularly one who saw a pretty substantial rise in partisanship during his tenure) would want some sort of reform.

That said, I believe the reforms Edwards is pushing are pretty misguided. Here are his six reforms and some brief responses to them:

  • Blanket primaries - I've addressed this issue before. I don't think it helps anyone if Democrats can pick Republican nominees and vice versa or if the general election is between two candidates of the same party. But even if you like this idea, there's very little evidence to suggest that it makes much of a difference. Washington state has had a blanket primary for a while now but maintains a pretty polarized state legislature. The legislators California elected during its earlier experiment with the blanket primary were no more moderate than in other years. Maybe it will make a modest difference, but I wouldn't bet good money on it.
  • Nonpartisan redistricting - There's no real evidence that this makes a difference, either. State legislatures in nonpartisan redistricting states are no less polarized than those where the majority party in the legislature draws up the districts. Polarization has definitely been occurring over the past few decades, but the fact that both states and counties -- which have fixed borders -- are polarizing just as rapidly suggests that redistricting hasn't had much to do with that.
  • The remainder of Edwards' reforms are quite insidery and would really only affect members of Congress and their immediate staffs. They including allowing more open rules in the House, increasing the power of the ranking minority member on each committee, filling committee vacancies by lottery, and professionalizing committee staff. I don't have terribly strong feelings about these, but I would note that the first two, which basically enhance the power of the minority party, would serve to make the House somewhat more like the Senate. If I were a minority member in the House, I'd be all over that, but is the Senate really a model of efficiency or collegiality right now?
In sum, Edwards' reforms would likely have little effect on partisanship, and any effects they have would be felt almost exclusively by members of the House of Representatives. That doesn't make them bad ideas so much as ineffectual ones. 

What does make them bad ideas is that they seek to undermine political parties, the greatest tool we've ever devised for representation in a democracy. The parties, which Edwards dismisses as "private clubs," consist of people who are volunteering their time, labor, and money to advance issues and candidates they care about to improve the country in some way, at least from their perspective. All that activity, aggregated into two large national parties, creates a great deal of constraint on members of Congress, who understandably chafe under that yoke. But it's that yoke that creates accountability and ensures that the government behaves in a way that is at least somewhat consistent with what the American people demanded in the most recent election.


Dana Houle said...

Even his "hire professional staff" suggestion is stupid. When you're dealing with policy, you WANT people who share you ideology working with you, because if you're a MoC you don't want to have to explain and justify everything to a non-partisan staffer, you just want them to do policy work and draft legislation consistent with your political beliefs, constituency needs and caucus positions. Furthermore, Edwards is showing his House-centric perspective, because in the Senate committee staff are hired by individual senators and they're assigned to do committee work for that Senator. Besides, there's already non-partisan staff available to members, and they're quite good: they're at Congressional Research and GAO. That's a fussy, tut-tutting solution in search of a problem.

Marc said...

Typically an editor writes the headlines. And often with SEO considerations, rather than accuracy or decency, foremost in mind. My experience at the Atlantic is that they don't run the headlines past you pre-publication unless you think to ask.

phat said...

If anybody wants to look at what "non-partisan" elections look like. Just come to Nebraska. Our politics are just as polarized as anywhere else.