The Real Leverage in Washington

December 05, 2012

Recent polls have shown that if the fiscal cliff negotiations fail, the public will mostly blame Republicans, not the President.  And several commentators have claimed that having the public on your side is the ultimate leverage in Washington. If it were a presidential election year, they might be right. But in our system of government, as it has evolved, there is a something even more important.

In Congress, the ultimate leverage is with the side that benefits most from doing nothing. Since Republicans can block any bill by not scheduling a vote in the House or filibustering in the Senate, and Democrats control the Senate calendar and the veto pen, whichever side benefits most from inaction can simply refuse to make serious concessions. That’s what happened last year when the President needed Congress to act to raise the debt ceiling. This time, automatic tax increases go into effect if Congress does not act, so the President’s party – who support increased revenues from the top 2% of earners – can simply wait out Republicans. After those increased taxes take effect January 1, he can tell Republicans to cut only middle class taxes and refuse to sign any bill that also cuts them for the richest. They will be left with the choice of some tax cuts or none.

We have set up a system where there is a strong preference for inaction. Only peak electoral success by one party, enough to fully control both houses of Congress and the presidency, allows for major action. George W. Bush had a Republican Congress for a while, and passed the tax cuts that are now expiring. Obama had substantial majorities in his first two years and passed a series of major changes, including  health care reform. But any time there is at least a cohesive block of 41 opposition Senators, the side of inaction will always be the most powerful position.  

Of course, voters can ultimately remove obstructionist members of Congress. But they are rarely focused on “process” issues like who blocked legislation or misused the rules. Consider whether you would vote against the party you normally support if your representative was too aggressive in using procedural moves to stop legislation. And with gerrymandered districts, members of the House, at least, are often more concerned with a primary challenge from a more extreme ideological camp in their own party than their relatively easy general election races. 

The founders certainly designed a government that would move slowly. The system they created required political agreement between two Houses and a President, all of whom were chosen separately. But slow is different than stopped. We should make modest reforms, not so legislation moves quickly – deliberation is virtue when considering major changes – but so that majority support is the most decisive power in legislating.

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