How Partisan Politics Have Undermined Political Oversight

Anyone who knows that the next Presidential election is in 2016 knows that immigration reform is going to happen, so why hasn’t it passed yet? One word: partisanship. I don’t mean ‘partisanship’ in the sense of people with different views not being able to reconcile their differences; I mean ‘partisanship’ in the sense of political operators prioritizing their electoral advantage over everything else. After all, why do anything today when you can run attack ads for the November mid-term elections before trying to reverse course over the next two years?

Similarly, why don’t we get comprehensive tax reform? Partisanship. Why haven’t we fixed our entitlement spending problem? All together now: partisanship.

There is, however, supposed to be one silver lining: partisanship is supposed to be good for oversight. After all, contested elections give everyone an incentive to catch the other guy’s malfeasance and to offer the public meaningful alternatives. But if it doesn’t feel to you like hyper-partisanship has ushered in a period of good governance, you might be on to something. And it isn’t just that our system is designed to come to a standstill if you can’t get a large part of the country to agree on which way is forward; there are other ways in which partisan oversight is letting Americans down.

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Let’s take a brief detour to remember a piece of Constitutional history. As we all learned in civics class (What? Your school didn’t have a civics class?), a major element of what the Founding Fathers put together when they crafted the Constitution was a system of checks and balances. That was probably described to you as a system in which different branches of government are given different powers. In truth, it’s more complicated than that.

Every State of the Union speech is a reminder that all branches are created equal...but some branches are more equal than others.

Every State of the Union speech is a reminder that all branches are created equal…but some branches are more equal than others.

The American system gives different aspects of the same power to different branches. For example, while the President is the Commander-in-Chief, only the Congress can declare war, while only the House can begin the necessary appropriations bills for conducting war, and only the Senate can approve a peace treaty (or any treaty). That’s a separation of the war power itself (though, in practice, it hasn’t entirely worked out that way). Additionally, each branch of government is supposed to respond to a different set of incentives as well as to different electoral bases: Representatives are selected at the district level every two years, Senators at the state level every six years, and the President through the too-complicated-to-cover-here Electoral College every four years. This was supposed to make it difficult for a political wave to rapidly take over government.

(In 2010, the system worked as designed: an insurgent Tea Party captured the House and got their agenda on the table, but couldn’t contend for the Senate or Presidency, thus limiting its reach. By the time the 2012 election came around, the party had largely wound down.)

One element of this system of separated powers that has become near and dear to Americans is the Senate’s authority to approve or disapprove of Presidential appointments. So it might surprise you to learn that that particular suggestion was met with deep skepticism when the Constitution went to the states for ratification.

The short version is this: early Americans saw accountability and the separation of powers as two sides of the same coin. If the organs of government were not separate from each other, then their incentives would be too closely aligned for one to serve as a check against the other. Remember that as originally envisioned Senators were not elected; rather, they were appointed by the states. The fear was that an insulated Senate would be poorly positioned to hold the President accountable for his decisions if it was also participating in those decisions at the time they were made. If the Senate had to approve of Presidential appointments, then those appointments would reflect the judgment of the Senate. For many of the Framers, that relationship was too intimate; they feared that the Senate would have an institutional prerogative to defend the wisdom of those choices.

It was an astute observation. But, in the end, it did not carry the day.

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What does that have to do with our current mess? Well, let’s take a look at some of the implications of party politics. First, partisan politics encourages the sort of short-term alignment of incentives that the Founders worked so hard to prevent: even if a Senator isn’t up for re-election, a Presidential candidate from his party might be or, at the very least, the House is up for grabs. Then there’s this: partisanship means that when a President is elected, he is confronted not just by members of a co-equal branch of government, but also by members of his own political party who have already pledged their political fortunes to his agenda.

In other words, members of Congress are intimately implicated in the President’s decisions. This isn’t what the Framer’s had in mind. They imagined that members of Congress could be disinterested – the same way that we expect a judge to be impartial. In other words, in exercising their oversight role, members of Congress shouldn’t have a stake in the matter: politically and electorally independent, they would be in a position to hold the President accountable. Partisan politics works against that.

Second, even as a combative electoral landscape encourage contentious oversight, it also encourages cynicism: an opportunistic political play might rile the base, but it doesn’t do much to sway the middle. The truth is that, for better or worse, most Americans don’t spend a majority of their time learning about the intricacies of government programs. Instead, they often depend on proxies to decide where they land on an issue – and the most relevant proxy tends to be the views held by people they identify with. When the lines in the sand are clearly partisan, then everybody knows what side to go to. One party prepares the attack, the other party digs in, and nothing happens.

That’s the structure of partisan scandal. And if looks partisan and sounds partisan, then most voters conclude that it is partisan. If you want to get anywhere with your political criticism, you need to be able to bring people over from the other side of the aisle. Most of the time, you don’t need their votes; you need the credibility they give your cause. When the attacks are transparently partisan, you get a lot of heat, but not a lot light.

On oversight, however, that’s actually much worse than nothing. It would be one thing if Congress was simply quiescent, then at least the electorate could vote them all out of office. But the outrage machine that the parties have turned oversight into means that the electorate has a mistaken belief that the government is being held to account when, a lot of the time, the Congress has traded the ability to actually stymie the President for the fundraising rewards that come with embarrassing him.

The irony is that the gridlock that partisanship creates in Congress actually shifts the balance of power to the President, who doesn’t have to cope with the same coordination problem.

What’s a democracy to do? I don’t think that the Framers really saw partisan politics coming, and it might be tempting to think that, if they had, they could have provided some sort of structural bulwark against its worst excesses. In the end, I think that’s a forlorn hope. The difficult truth is that there are no structural alternatives to good leadership. Modern Americans accept that politicians are petty and corrupt, and we try to build a system of government that will keep them in check. The Framers were also concerned about that, and they did what they could to minimize the danger. But in the end, the final check on bad government is supposed to be the ballot box.

Americans keep rewarding politicians that are consistently outraged and rarely capable or willing to substantively change the way Washington operates. If you reward something, then you’re going to get more of it.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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