Ten Miles Square


July 18, 2012 12:08 PM It’s Not Always About Congressional Dysfunction

By Jonathan Bernstein

Mark Thoma defends economists by bashing Congress:

For fiscal policy the answer is clear and simple. Congress is broken, and it no longer has the ability to work for the common good. Perhaps eliminating the filibuster, removing money from politics, reversing Citizens United, and so on would help – that remains to be seen – but as it stands, Congress is clearly dysfunctional.
And that dysfunction coupled with the influence of big money interests caused Congress to listen to the wrong voices. Instead of paying attention to economists who had been right about the recession all along, Congress listened to the voices that had mostly gotten things wrong. In large part, the people who favored deregulation of the financial sector, assured us there was no housing bubble, and told us problems could be easily contained even if there was a bubble are the very same people who brought us the push for austerity, the fear of inflation, the fear of bond vigilantes, and so on, none of which was helpful.

I mostly disagree with this. Break it down:

1. In 2009, Congress moved rapidly to pass a large stimulus bill. Was it big enough? Probably not, but it wasn’t way off from the consensus of economic thought, as far as I can see. Yes, some economists said it should be have been bigger, even very much bigger, but overall I don’t think Congress was far off from what economists were saying.

2. In 2010 you have the best case for Congressional dysfunction as he describes it. The White House was clearly pushing for more stimulus (even if it was, again, rather short of what many economists wanted), and Congress barely acted.

3. In 2011 Congress moves to austerity, strongly contrary to the consensus among economists. However, calling that a case of Congressional dysfunction seems wrong to me. The White House and most Congressional Democrats wanted fiscal expansion in 2011 and 2012, but House Republicans wanted contraction. But unlike 2010, these Republicans weren’t a minority blocking action; they had won a landslide election! There is, to be sure, institutional malfunction here, but it’s not Congress; it’s the Republican Party.

You can’t expect, and we generally don’t want, Congress to produce results that differ dramatically from election returns. The fault lies elsewhere. One could blame voters, but I generally don’t do that; they usually just react to the choices they have. The fault here (if you think that austerity is a terrible mistake) is with a Republican Party which is entirely rejecting the mainstream economic consensus. It’s not even limited to the Congressional wing of the GOP; all the presidential candidates were for austerity, as are most Republicans in state government.

For 2011-2012, I see no reason at all to believe that anything about Congress as an institution, from the way they are elected through the way they organize themselves, has anything at all to do with the problem Thoma is concerned about. He can blame the Republican Party, or he can just blame democracy, but to blame it on Congressional dysfunction is a bum rap.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.


  • Peter C on July 19, 2012 11:43 AM:


    There is not much of a distinction between the claim that ‘Congress is broken’ and the claim that ‘The Republicans broke Congress’; both are true. Beginning immediately after the election, the Republicans have waged as consistent strategy to use Congress to prevent the wholesale reform which one could expect from the landslide election of 2008. In 2009 and 2010, Nancy Pelosi was remarkably effective at passing good legislation which subsequently fell to the permanent filibuster in the Senate. The abuse of the filibuster blocked most everything except the stimulus bill, which came to the floor under reconciliation and thus could not be filibustered. With the debacle of the 2010 election, the permanent filibuster was no longer required because the Boehner’s control of the House meant that no part of a Democratic agenda would even be considered.

    So, it is not ONLY that Republicans have been willing to hijack the legislative branch and prevent it from acting that is the problem. The other half of the problem is that the arcane rules of Congress (the filibuster, majority privileges in the House) and flaws in our election systems (‘safe’ districts through gerrymandering, the astronomical cost of campaigns, Citizens United, unaccountable voting equipment, media distortion, vote suppression and engineered citizen apathy) have enabled a relative minority of voters to hogtie the legislative branch and prevent it from functioning for partisan ideological objectives just when the economic reality demands action. As an economist, Thoma understands that sound fiscal policy could greatly relieve our current economic suffering. But that would violate the core beliefs of the Republican Party, and they’ve used Congress to prevent it.

    Republicans don’t believe that government should exist; they believe it curtails their ‘freedoms’. It stops them from being free to poison rivers downstream, hire children for their factories, and swindle consumers too gullible to wisely practice ‘caveat emptor’. Government social services interfere with their God’s proper punishment of the wicked and ‘crowd out’ the salvation from the charity offered by their religious institutions. They see this as waging war on religion! Their stated aim is to shrink government until they can ‘drown it in a bathtub’ – to ‘privatize’ all that can be ‘outsourced’ and eliminate the rest. They don’t want it to work, so when they run it, they run it badly. When they are out of power, they bog it down whenever possible.

    Congress was intended as a deliberative body where debate might refine policy to better serve the populace as a whole. But there is no deliberation anymore. There is only posturing and tactics and block voting. There is no cooperation or dialog, only shouting and acrimony. Adherence to strict dogma has replaced attempts at consensus and compromise. There were structural weaknesses which enabled this change which must be corrected AS WELL AS a power shift away from the Republican Party which must be accomplished. If we accomplish the power shift, we must tackle the structural weaknesses as well as fix the country.