Archive for the ‘Governing’ Category

Top Two and Polarization

One of the central claims made by proponents of the top two system of election is that by opening up the electorate–forcing candidates to compete for the full spectrum of voters rather than just those in their party–we would get more moderate legislators and less polarization in Sacramento. Here’s some of the argument from the 2010 Primary Election Voter Guide:

Our economy is in crisis. …

Our state government is broken.

But the politicians would rather stick to their rigid partisan positions and appease the special interests than work together to solve California’s problems.

In order to change government we need to change the kind of people we send to the Capitol to represent us.


The politicians won’t do it, but Proposition 14 will. …

“The best part of the open primary is that it would lessen the influence of the major parties, which are now under control of the special interests.” (Fresno Bee, 2/22/09.)


Non-partisan measures like Proposition 14 will push our elected officials to begin working together for the common good. …

Vote Yes on 14—for elected representatives who are LESS PARTISAN and MORE PRACTICAL.

What’s not to like there? The promise is that we’ll get less partisan representatives who can work together for the benefit of the state as a whole rather than the parties and interests that worked to get them elected.

So how’s that working out? It’s actually pretty hard to say. Things seem to be running smoother in Sacramento, but is that because (a) we have unified Democratic control of the state government, (b) Democrats control almost 2/3 of the state legislature, (c) the economy has been improving, (d) changes made to legislative districts by the Citizen’s Redistricting Commission, (e) reforms to the budgeting process enacted by Prop. 25, (f) changes to term limits made by Prop. 28, (g) something else, or (h) all of the above? Honestly, given so many moving pieces, it’s hard to say for sure what has led to the renaissance (such as it is) in California government.

But, new data is becoming available that can help us assess parts of the claims made by top two supporters. For example, has the top two system of elections led to less polarization in the legislature? Are legislators more likely to work together in a non-partisan fashion now that we have the top two system?

To help answer this question I will turn to the Shor-McCarty NPAT scores. These scores map legislators in each of the states on a common liberal-conservative spectrum. In July, Shor and McCarty released an update that includes data for 2013 so that we can see how the legislature is behaving in the year after our first top two election. The following graph plots the distance between the median Republican and the median Democrat in both chambers of the state legislature between 1993 and 2013. Higher scores mean greater distance between the two party medians and therefore more polarization.


So, um, yeah … not so much with the “less partisan” and “more practical” legislators. The trend in greater polarization that began in 1995 seems to have continued unabated in 2013. Both the California Assembly and the State Senate were more polarized in 2013 than they were at any other time given this data. A system that was supposed to break the party-dominated tone of life in Sacramento hasn’t done so. Indeed, the polarization trend has held through three different primary (closed, blanket, and semi-closed) systems in addition to the top two system.

But wait, you are saying, this is the first year we have used the top two system. Give it some time, you say. Maybe things will change in a couple years. Possibly. Possibly.

As it happens, California isn’t the first state to adopt the top two system. Immediately before we adopted it, Washington adopted the top two system. The following graph presents the same data for Washington. What has happened to polarization there? Nothing of note. Well, we can say one thing of note: Again, contrary to the promises of the pro-top two reformers, polarization didn’t go down after Washington adopted the top two system.


Six California’s No More

September 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Well, darn. The plan to split California into six separate states died before it even hit the ballot. Not that there was ever any chance of this proposal ever becoming a reality, but we don’t even get to debate its merits (or lack thereof) for the next two years.

The proposed six states.

A note to all you would be initiative sponsors out there: Yes, people will sign a lot of what you shove in their faces outside the grocery store or the mall. They won’t put much thought into whether they are signing the right form, whether they can legally sign it, or whether they are signing their own name or someone else’s name, though. Draper’s organization submitted 1,150,000 signatures hoping to get at least the needed 807,615 valid signatures. They weren’t able to get there, falling about 50,000 short.

Count me as disappointed.

Another Cut at Two Presidencies

My colleague, Prof. Klunk, wrote what has become one of the more popular posts on this site–an investigation of whether or not there are two presidencies. His post is about Aaron Wildavsky’s version of the two presidencies theory, the idea that there is a “foreign policy” presidency and a “domestic policy” presidency.

In this post, I want to explore a different two presidencies theory–advanced by Jeffrey Tulis–and use it as an excuse to pontificate about last night’s State of the Union Address. (I apologize in advance to Tulis. I probably will do his argument some disservice here.)

In the Rhetorical Presidency, Tulis argues that there are two constitutional presidencies–an uppercase “Constitutional” presidency and a lowercase “constitutional” presidency. (An abbreviated version of the argument can be found in Michael Nelson’s The Presidency and the Political System.) The “Constitutional” presidency refers to the presidency as it was conceived by the men who wrote the Constitution. This presidency is a limited presidency in which the president draws his authority from the Constitution and does not lead public opinion. Indeed, the Founders designed the presidency in order to limit the potential influence of a given president on the political system. The office exists within a separation of powers system, with the the three branches pursuing different objectives and performing different functions. The president’s function is to administer the laws that Congress passes. This presidency is a very limited presidency from a contemporary perspective. In the Richard Neustadt’s phrasing, the president is “an invaluable clerk,” someone whose actions are needed for the federal government to run effectively but who–by virtue of the constitutional limitations on his power–yields little independent influence over its direction.

The “constitutional” presidency, in contrast, is one in which the president draws his authority from his ability to lead public opinion in addition to the authority granted to the president by the Constitution. This vision of presidency demands that the president take an active role in determining the government’s direction. It is a rhetorical presidency–one in which the president must take the pulse of public opinion, turn that vague opinion into concrete policy proposals, and then actively work to convince the public (and thereby Congress) to support it. The lowercase “constitutional” presidency requires the president to be more than a clerk; it requires the president to be a leader.

Tulis argues that the two constitutional presidencies ultimately conflict with each other. The “constitutional” presidency demands an activist president that seeks to lead the public–and thereby the government–with bold policy proposals. The “Constitutional” emphasizes the institutional limits on the president’s ability to do so.

So what does this have to do with the last night’s State of the Union? I think President Obama’s speech last night was a perfect example of the tension that Tulis talks about.

On the one hand, there are a lot of things that President Obama would like to do. Using the example that a lot of people are talking about today, President Obama would like to raise the minimum wage. There’s actually a fair amount of public support for doing so. According to a November 2013 Gallup Poll, 76% of respondents said they would support raising the minimum wage to $9 per hour (the proposal from last year’s State of the Union). People are also still worried about their financial situation and the direction the economy is going. So here’s a case where President Obama can potentially be a leader by taking a proposal that has popular support, turning it into a concrete policy proposal, and then advocating for its passage.

But given current levels of partisan disagreement in Congress there’s no chance that Congress will actually raise the minimum wage. The House Republicans, for strategical political reasons and because of sincere policy beliefs, are not at all interested in raising the minimum wage. President Obama knows that. Everyone in Congress knows that. The talking heads on cable news know that (if they are being honest). Really, any reasonable political observer knows that the president’s proposal is basically dead in the water.

The end result is that because we (the public) expect the president to be a leader, President Obama has to get up in front of the nation and give a speech full of bold policy proposals that cannot be enacted because the Republicans control the House and they are not interested in passing his proposals. He has to create the appearance of being influential in a system where he actually has only a limited amount of influence.

A Reduced Filibuster

The Senate Democrats did it. Presidential nominations for executive appointments and lower court seats can no longer be filibustered. Instead, these nominations will be subject to a simple majority vote. I agree with Ezra Klein–today’s vote effectively ends the filibuster as an institution in American politics. The Senate, from this point forward, will be more like the House. I don’t know if means the ability to move the previous question will be reintroduced in the Senate, though.

Here’s some of Sarah Binder’s take:

1.  Is today’s change as landmark as reporters say?  Yes, this is big.  Jeremy Peters in the New York Timesargues that “The change is the most fundamental shift in the way the Senate functions in more than a generation.”  Peters is probably correct.  To be sure, Senate majorities have nibbled away at parts of the Senate’s Rule 22 (the cloture rule) since the threshold was last changed in 1975.  Some of those changes (such as imposing and then reducing a post-cloture debate cap) were achieved by following the formal rules of the Senate.  Others (such as banning filibusters of motions to proceed to particular nominations) were changed by mini-nuclear options, if you will.  In contrast, this is the first reform of Senate rules that changes the number of votes required to invoke cloture.  And the Democrats did it in an institutionally-gutsy way.  Senate majorities will still have to go through the steps of filing for cloture (I think!), but now a simple majority suffices to end debate to bring the Senate to an up-or-down vote on nominees.  This is what Senate Republicans called for 2005; Harry Reid has delivered it.  (Careful what you wish for.)

4. Will GOP senators retaliate by blowing up every remaining bridge in sight? This has historically been a viable threat that has undermined majorities’ efforts to go nuclear.  But such retaliation clearly did not dissuade Reid and his colleagues from going forward.  As he said on more than one occasion, how much worse can the Senate get?  Or as Greg Koger has suggested, senators are already exploiting the least costly avenues of obstruction.  To be more obstructive would likely begin to impose more costs on the minority that they might not want to absorb. Hanging around the chamber to cast votes just to slow down the majority might not be worth it for the minority.  And at some point, the risk of being tagged as obstructionist could hurt GOP senators in 2014 (though this remains to be seen of course).

This really is big. It’s difficult to understate how significant this change is and will be.

The Beginning of the End of the Filibuster?

The Senate is currently debating whether to impose the “nuclear option” on presidential nominees for executive branch offices and for  nominees to the district and appellate courts. Nominees to the Supreme Court would, for now, still be subject to the filibuster. Senate Democrats threatened to make similar changes at the start of the current Congress and again over the past summer. (See here for a quick summary of the timeline.) Each time, however, they were able to reach a deal with the Republicans to allow some nominations to proceed without changing the rules.

While there will be protests that Senate Democrats have broken the rules if they do restrict the use of the filibuster (this is currently Mitch McConnell’s favorite talking point), most observers agree that it can be done. Gregory Koger, for example, writes:

Bottom line: a simple majority has—and has always had—the power to restrict filibustering if senators are willing to take extreme measures to achieve their goals. Although parliamentary rules are discussed as if they are LAWS (with “rules” and “precedents” and “rulings from the chair”) in the final analysis the rules can be interpreted however a majority of the legislature prefer.

The basic logic of filibuster reform is this: Is it worth enough for me today, as I sit in the majority, to lose the filibuster in the future should my party become the minority? Am I willing to give up the potential to obstruct in the future so that I can get my way today? (Yes, there are reputation and potential electoral costs that I will incur if I change the rules, but these are relatively minor. PR wars happen all the time over bigger issues that have little to no effect on elections.)

It’s unclear what the outcome of this change would be. Would Senate Republicans follow through on the MAD (mutually assured destruction) aspect of the nuclear option and grind the Senate to a complete halt by obstructing everything else? Honestly, the reason the Senate Democrats are willing to even discuss the nuclear option is that over the last five years the Republicans have already largely adopted this policy. Yes, there is more that could happen in the way of obstruction, but the level of Republican obstruction has become so great that Democrats feel it is now worth paying the price.

I do think, however, that any change in the filibuster today would signal the beginning of the end of the filibuster has we have known and loved it. If it is okay to change the filibuster today because of minority party obstruction of nominees, it becomes easier to change the filibuster tomorrow because of minority party obstruction of a bill.

BTW, my go to sources for analysis of any such proposal are Sarah Binder and Gregory Koger, both of whom have written extensively on the filibuster (see here, here, and here for examples of Binder’s work and here, here, and here for examples of Koger’s work). They don’t always agree on their analysis.

Gerrymandering and the Shutdown

Gerrymandering is a popular topic right now. Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal have an important reminder to everyone who wants to blame the current shutdown/debt ceiling on electorally insulated members of Congress: gerrymandering isn’t the cause of the problem.

They write:

What if we told you that the gerrymandering of congressional districts has nothing to do with political polarization in Washington? Gerrymandering didn’t have anything to do with the shutdown, or the battles over the debt ceiling, or Obamacare. In fact, the accepted view that politically based redistricting led to our state of intransigence isn’t just incorrect; it’s silly.

The real reason for our increasingly divided political system is much simpler: The right wing of the Republican Party has embraced a fundamentalist version of free-market capitalism andsucceeded in winning elections. (The Democrats have moved to the left, but less so.)

The Republican shift is the result of several factors. The realignment of Southern white voters into the Republican Party, the branch of conservative activism created by Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign and the party’s increasingly firm stance on issues such as income inequality and immigration, can all be important to Republicans’ rightward shift.

The “blame it on the gerrymanders” argument mistakenly assumes that because redistricting created more comfortable seats for each party, polarization became inevitable. Our research, however, casts serious doubt on that idea.

Did you hear that: There is no necessary connection between gerrymandering, the creation of safe seats, and polarization.

Still more good stuff:

The most important element affecting polarization in the House of Representatives is the divergent approaches that Democrats and Republicans take to representing districts that are otherwise similar in terms of demographics and presidential voting. Even in moderate districts, Democratic representatives are still very liberal and Republican representatives are very conservative. This reflects a widening ideological gap, not different lines on a map.

If could magically switch the party of the person representing a district, you would observe dramatically different behavior (voting and otherwise) in Congress. It’s not that Congress is polarized because the districts are polarized. The parties have fundamentally different views of governing and seek to act on those views when in Congress. They do so, in some cases, in spite of the district.

One last bit:

There is another distinction. Many districts are safe for one party or the other because of how Americans have sorted themselves geographically — choosing to live closer to people who are politically or culturally like-minded. In Florida, for example, Palm Beach County will be reliably Democratic and the Panhandle will consistently vote for Republicans. These geographic shifts mean that state legislatures, which approve congressional district lines, can tweak but not fundamentally alter the ideological makeup of Congress.

Congress also has a handful of representatives from one-district states such as Vermont and Wyoming that can’t be subject to gerrymandering. Yet they are just as partisan as their colleagues from gerrymandered districts in other states.

See also Seth Masket’s recent post on the subject. Or my earlier post.

Federal Spending

The federal deficit at the end of FY 2012 was $1,087,000,000,000. If you want to make a dent in the level of national debt, you have to turn that number positive. Here’s where we spent money in FY 2012. Can you make enough cuts to get to $1,087,000,000,000? Of course, your other option is to increase revenue (i.e., raise taxes).


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