The Debt Ceiling and the Decline of American Democracy

Jacob Hacker and Oona Hathaway, both professors at Yale University, have a very good op-ed in today’s New York Times. I definitely recommend it. To sum up their argument, the U.S. has a democracy problem. The U.S. Government is unable to embody the balance prescribed in the Constitution. Congress is hamstrung by its procedures; limiting action, compromise, or perhaps most desperately needed, debate. It’s failure to foster any of these qualities leaves the presidency as the only institution positioned to take action or keep government afloat.  As they point out, this is a double edged sword. Presidential power grabs further undermine our democratic foundation (to be governed by a representative body rather than an individual) while reducing responsibility (also read: culpability) of those in Congress abdicating their responsibilities as the first branch. The idea isn’t new but the debt crisis is a particularly poignant example of just how bad it has gotten.

My only quibble with the article is how they suggest to fix the problem. Their focus is the entire system, not just Congress that is a single facet of that process, so my critique is obviously limited. Hacker and Hathaway blame, in part, the Senate’s the filibuster. There is no question the filibuster has developed into a huge problem. But it isn’t the filibuster that is the reason for Congress’s decline. It was instituted long before Congress began its decline and has only become a system-threatening problem over the past 10 years. Lamenting the filibuster without dealing with the issues that make the filibuster a problem is kind treating patients symptoms without treating the disease. The filibuster, like all other rules, is simply one feature of a larger whole. The problem is not the filibuster, but how it’s being used. Of course it needs to be reformed, but changing the vote requirement to cut off debate will not make Congress an efficient institution.

The problem is deeper and more complicated than Senate debate. The problem is that parties hold too much legislative power. Former Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards (OK) wrote an interesting article in The Atlantic a few days ago. He offers several reforms, most of which are intended to undermine the parties’ hold on politics. As Seth Masket notes, most of these reforms would do little in the way of changing politics. I’ll go a step further though, several of Edwards’ congressional reforms would likely increase polarization. Putting more power in the hands of minority members in Congress will only spike dilatory motions, further debilitating Congress’s already slow process. If you want to reduce party power, reforms need to make individuals less reliant on their party leaders, not more.

However, unlike Masket, I agree with Edwards’ intent. By eliminating some of the power parties’ hold, we can begin to make the politics more deliberative. It used to be that parties were seen as the champions of public debate. And they may have been the best way to represent the American people when they were broad umbrella-like groups aimed at representing the largest portion of citizens, but that is hardly the portrait political parties illustrate today. Instead, we see two groups representing increasingly narrow segments of the country. Reasoned debate has all but disappeared from public dialogue. In this way, parties no longer promote democracy; they are undermining its foundation.

The bottom line is the U.S. has moved much closer to a parliamentary system. In other words, it’s beginning to look a lot like England. The major and unchanging problem with this recent development is that Constitution specifically prescribed a non-parliamentary process. The current strength of political parties has put the U.S. into a confounding situation. The checks and balances system is not structured to manage strong, unified, party politics. Today, they are simply too strong for anything outside of unified government to function. And if last Congress was any indication, they don’t function all that well even in those conditions. Parties were never meant to dominate American politics, only to facilitate compromise and form coalitions between legislators with starkly different interests. Most of the Founders’ despised parties, which is why there isn’t a single mention of parties in the Constitution. It sought to balance interests and foster compromise, not elect a party with the ability to run roughshod over the nation for 2-4 years at a time. Tyranny of the majority was just as menacing to the founders as tyranny by a monarch.


About Joshua Huder
This entry was posted in American Political Development, Elections, Electoral Institutions, Filibuster, Legislative Politics, Legislative Theory, Separation of Powers, The Presidency. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Debt Ceiling and the Decline of American Democracy

  1. Josh, define “party politics” in this context — because if you’re talking about “voting the party line” that’s not a new thing. Just look at the 50s and votes on desegregation, for example.

    Now look at the balance of power: .

    That chart suggests that there is a clear difference between the Congress/White House of the 2000s and the Congress-White House of post WWII 20th century: for the first time, there was an R in the White House with an R-controlled Congress for four years and with the Ds having only a one-seat advantage in the Senate for two more years. The Rs appear to have been punch drunk with power — the budgetary restraint of the R Congress during the Clinton years (remember, he left office with a budget surplus) vanished with the election of Bush.

    I cannot explain the fascination (by voters or the Rs) with the Tea Party movement.

    • Joshua Huder says:

      Hey Kathy,
      “Party politics” is a pretty loaded term when I use it. Primarily though, I am referring to party leaders’ procedural control of the legislative process. They control the agenda, manipulate the rules on policy votes, have a heavy influence on committee assignments and operations. All of these powers give the Speaker and Majority Leader (in Senate) significant control of the process. This, to a large extent, has led to more party unity in both chambers and greater polarization in Congress.

      To speak to your point though, you’re right. On the whole, party voting isn’t a novel development. But, voting the party line has markedly increased over the few decades. This link ( has two graphs at the very bottom of the page that illustrate this point. The graphs measures the percentage of members voting with a majority of their party. Party unity in these terms usually fluctuates between 70% and 95%. As you can see, the huge increase in recent history occurred in the mid-1970s. While voting the party line is not necessarily new, the US has not experienced these levels of unity since the late 1800s and early 1900s. In that sense, party voting is proliferating now more so than in its history.

      To compound this fact, the distance between the two parties is at its all time high (there are also graphs from the link above about this). This is what I mean by party politics. The US has more polarized parties which would ideally create strong majorities capable of governing. My point was that the US Constitution is structured on compromise, not dominance. With stronger parties comes stronger opposition. And on a system premised on balancing interests with multiple checks on majority power, this leads to gridlock and a fairly dysfunctional system.

      Thanks for your comment!

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