Political Gridlock Isn't a Fact of Life

When it goes right – which admittedly isn’t often these days – the process of legislating in the U.S. Congress is a terrific exercise in Madisonian democracy.
Representative Darrell Issa pushed  the DATA Act with Senator Mark Warner of Virginia. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

As promised, some broader thoughts about Andrew Prokop's how-a-bill-becomes-a-law story.

A central conclusion to be drawn is that individual members matter, even in these days of intense partisan polarization. I got the sense from Prokop's article that if Representative Darrell Issa or Senator Mark Warner hadn't returned for the 113th Congress, after falling short in the 112th, their DATA Act would have died. As David Mayhew has found, the influence of individual members has played a role in both small and big things throughout congressional history. We often overlook this during election season, when the focus is on partisan balance. After all. the most important vote some members of the House will cast in the next Congress will be the opening day vote for speaker. And yet, if some other equally Republican, equally conservative politician had been elected instead of Issa, there would have been no DATA Act. Individuals matter even more in the Senate. One reason Issa was able to make a difference is because he's a committee chair, but any individual senator can successfully push a bill on any topic

Another lesson is that when things go right, Congress's procedures do the work of democracy by bringing in the voices of important outside constituencies. This is true even in an era of increased gridlock. Most people didn't care very much about the proposal from Issa and Warner, but those who would be immediately affected by it were certain to make themselves effectively heard. That tends to bias government solutions away from one-size-fits-all comprehensive measures and toward granting exceptions and exemptions to those who get the attention of lawmakers.

Whether that's good or bad is a matter for legitimate debate, especially when not all groups have the same opportunity to be heard. My own preferences would be to work to ensure that more groups are effectively heard, rather than locking out everyone and turning over policy strictly to the policy makers in Congress or the bureaucracy. In any case, reforms intended to streamline congressional procedure could end up disrupting the ways that groups get involved in the process - with potentially devastating consequences for democracy.

One point that Prokop doesn't quite bring out is that bureaucratic infighting is often about larger governing issues. Issa and Warner wound up putting Treasury in charge of their data project, rather than the Office of Management and Budget. Treasury is an independent executive branch department, responsible both to the president and to Congress, and containing a large bureaucracy with its own ideas of how to do things. OMB is part of the presidential branch, and much farther from the reach of Congress. Choosing between them affects, to some extent, the balance of power between the branches of government.

Beyond the details, the DATA Act shows that Congress can work. Yes, the status quo bias is strong, but there's also a competing, opposite bias: the incentives for politicians to get something done, even when that something isn't a particularly good idea. These may be electoral and constituency incentives, but also could include the fundamental desire of many elected legislators to actually legislate. Against that, some status quo bias may not be so bad.

The main conclusion for reformers should be the need to reinforce the incentives that push politicians to take legislating seriously, while also preserving the ways groups outside of Congress can affect what happens, and finding ways to bring in other voices. When it goes right - which admittedly isn't often these days - the process of legislating in the U.S. Congress really is a terrific exercise in Madisonian democracy.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.