Even Good Government Has Unintended Consequences

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There have been a lot of brickbats thrown at Boehner for the difficulty he's having whipping his members to vote for a bill that can't even pass the Senate. This morning, blogger Economics of Contempt tweeted "If Tom DeLay had suffered an embarrassing defeat like last night, he would have literally fallen on his sword overnight, Samurai-style."  That seems to be a pretty common sentiment.


This is also why Wall Street has been expecting a deal; ultimately, if the leadership really wants something to pass, they ought to be able to pass it. A majority leader has a lot of carrots and sticks he can offer.  Vote against him, and he'll sideline your legislative agenda.  Vote his way, and new projects bloom in your district, ripe for ribbon-cuttings and campaign events.

But the rather purist "Good Government" agenda of the GOP seems to be making it hard to get anything done.  "Don't raise the debt ceiling" is what's at the top of the tea party agenda, and it's what many of their constituents are demanding.  You can argue that their constituents are desperately confused about how much of their life is supported by government spending, and how much that spending costs--and I'd agree.  But unfortunately, the only way those constituents are going to figure it out is if we fail to raise the ceiling, and their pocketbooks take a massive hit.

Meanwhile, as Politico reported yesterday, the GOP campaign against earmarks has disabled the other weapon in a speaker's arsenal:

Boehner and his top lieutenants worked deep into Thursday night trying to find a just-right solution that would attract 216 votes for the package of $900 billion in new borrowing authority, $917 billion in spending cuts over the next decade, and a process for entitlement and tax reform legislation that could lead to $1.6 trillion or so in deficit reduction and a second increase in the debt limit.

They don't have available to them the same tools as past Republican leadership teams: There are no earmarks to hand out, nor any to take away, for example.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of the last holdouts and a candidate for the Senate in Arizona, spoke of how "refreshing" it was to see a lobbying effort bereft of the legislative grease that used to secure last-minute votes in the House. He said the vote-building would have "cost $20 billion" in the past.

GOP leaders ran into resistance from a broad array of conservatives, some acting in concert with each other and others acting more as lone wolves. The South Carolina delegation couldn't be cracked. Led by freshman Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), the five GOP members from that state refused to give over their votes.
"Good government" reforms don't always produce good government; you also need good governors.  When we try to reform institutions, we tend to focus on the crude things that are easy to change: earmark rules, term limits.  But unless you also change the culture, these reforms can make things worse, not better.  

Many analysts I've talked to think that term limits led to a significant decline in the quality of New York's City Council.  Yes, you no longer had lifers.  Instead you had people who were deeply beholden to the activist groups that elected them (and to which they would return after the next election.)  These people had little knowledge of legislative history, so they were extraordinarily vulnerable to fine-sounding policies that were actually disastrous.  (I once watched someone try to explain to council members why they couldn't just double New York's already high taxes to close the budget deficit and provide some extra services to hurting constituents.  It was not pretty.)  And while previously, lobbyists had had strong incentives not to tell lies about their projects that were too outlandish, because legislators would remember and punish those who misled them, once you term limited the members, the cost of spinning extravagent fairy tales plummeted sharply.

It seems to me that the ban on earmarks may represent another such case. Don't get me wrong: I intensely dislike what they represent.  But they are not the source of our fiscal problems, and they clearly provided some vital lubricant for our nation's creaky legislative machinery.

But what if you don't want new laws?  I don't, much.  But I want a government that doesn't pass many new programs, not one that can't perform routine administrative tasks.  The ban on earmarks seems to be helping drive our legislative process into a ditch, and the repairs are going to be more expensive than the earmarks were.  That doesn't seem like a good bargain.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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