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Why congress can't get things done

I know i've been a sort of Yglesias/Drum clearing house lately, and on that grounds i passed on this when i originally read these posts on Friday, but then Friday night we were catching up on our Ricky Gervais show backlog and they had a bit about how in Greek times a group of citizens were randomly picked, on an occasional basis, to propose a few laws which would then get voted on via referendum (i'm roughly paraphrasing here due to not being able to fully hear the details due to Friday night shenanigans), and i think that's a great idea since it circumvents congress and would allow some popular laws to get enacted.

So back to these posts for why we'd have to circumvent congress.

Yglesias is nearly in conspiracy territory:

Well, roughly because there's no political percentage in writing a bill that passes. Increased immigration of foreign technical experts isn't just widely popular among policy analysts and opinion leaders, it's a key priority for high-tech companies. So legislators have the goal not so much of doing what the tech companies want, as trying to structure the situation so as to align the tech companies with their partisan interests. So Texas Republican Lamar Smith's challenge was to write a bill that did what the tech companies wanted (more visas for skilled foreigners) but that wouldn't actually pass the House of Representatives. He took a two-step approach to this. One was to ensure that each new visa for a skilled foreigner would be offset by one fewer visa allocated under the current system. That helped gin up Democratic opposition. Then the House leadership ensured the bill would be introduced under rules that required a two-thirds vote for passage. The combination of the ruleset and the poison pill was sufficient to achieve Rep Smith's objective--overwhelming GOP support for a bill tech companies love and that failed in the House.

Conversely, the way Democrats like to play this issue when they have the majority is by linking increased immigration of high-skill foreigners to a broader comprehensive immigration reform package that creates a path to citizenship for current undocumented residents. That way it's Republicans who block what the tech companies want.

One moral of the story is that everything about Congress is terrible. Another moral of the story is that American politics is both more and less polarized than it seems. Less because it's not actually true that Democrats and Republicans disagree about everything--the polariztion of voting patterns is in part an artificial construct of agenda control.

Drum's explanation is a little more mundane:

Whenever there's a contentious bill on the table, at least a few pundits will start to suggest that instead of something big, Congress should "go small." Why not just pass the two or three things that everyone agrees on and leave the hard stuff for later?

But the reason is obvious, and it's not wholly down to partisan cynicism: it's those easy parts that help grease the skids for the bigger, harder-to-pass bill. If you pass all the popular stuff on its own, you're left solely with a bunch of controversial and/or unpopular bits, and what chance does that have to pass? About zero. Passing the small, popular bits on their own basically dooms your chances of ever sweetening up a comprehensive bill enough to get a majority of Congress to swallow it in the face of all the sour bits they're going to have to swallow alongside it. So you save those bits for later. That's politics.

Back to the Greek idea, the truth is it's fairly utopian and probably would be more of a danger than a blessing in a large modern society. In fact, the example that Yglesias uses as a springboard, handing out more work permits to high-skilled foreigners with STEM degrees, isn't necessarily something i agree with! But it's an interesting thought experiment.

By fnord12 | September 24, 2012, 11:28 AM | Liberal Outrage