Putting on the tinfoil hat again

What if Congress refuses to appropriate money for the surge and the Dear Leader just ignores it?

I realize that this question may sound flip, but given the Bush Administration’s desire for a permanent constitutional crisis, I think that it might be worth wargaming right now. The conversation now in Left Blogistan is whether Congress should refuse to appropriate money. But isn’t this just a paper formality?

Say Congress refuses to appropriate the billions that Bush requests for the war. Then Bush just orders his Treasury Secretary, who reports to him, to cut the check, buy the equipment, pay the suppliers, etc. Quite literally, is there anything that stops this from occurrring as a practical matter?

And does anyone think that an answer such as, “well, that would be illegal and an impeachable offense” has any purchase? The President’s minions will just say that this is inherent in the Commander-in-Chief power; they will note that Article I of the Constitution only says that all legislative power herein granted shall be vested in Congress, implying a legislative power in the Presidency (don’t laugh; I’ve heard this); the press will dutifully say that there is a legal dispute; and that will be the end of that.

We all assume that Congress has the power of the purse, but all these things depend upon some commitment by everyone to observe basic norms of a political culture. But I am not being rhetorical here: is there any practical reason why this scenario would not occur?

More from Mr. Justice Frankfurter

“A constitutional democracy like ours is perhaps the most difficult of man’s social arrangements to manage successfully. Our scheme of society is more dependent than any other form of government on knowledge and wisdom and self-discipline for the achievement of its aims ”

My eye fell on this delicious snippet from Justice Frankfurter’s concurrence in Youngstown Sheet. It’s not directly relevant to any current controversy — though some shrill person will, no doubt, remark on the transcendent folly of putting George W. Bush in charge of an enterprise dependent on “knowledge and wisdom and self-discipline” — but its argument is cogent and its prose puts most contemporary judicial prose to shame:

Before the cares of the White House were his own, President Harding is reported to have said that government after all is a very simple thing. He must have said that, if he said it, as a fleeting inhabitant of fairyland. The opposite is the truth. A constitutional democracy like ours is perhaps the most difficult of man’s social arrangements to manage successfully. Our scheme of society is more dependent than any other form of government on knowledge and wisdom and self-discipline for the achievement of its aims.

Polarization Update

We got a number of great responses to my posting on polarization. Here’s a response:

A number of respondents suggested making it easier to vote in primaries, including internet-based or mail-in voting. I’ve been suspicious of this in the past, because of fears of concerns about identity-confirmation and a loss of the civic ritual of voting. But the former concern seems primarily technological and relatively easy to overcome, and the latter less important the fewer people who actually show up to vote. It seems highly likely that this would, in fact, increase voting in primaries, and as a consequence decrease the dominance of ideological hard-liners.

Another interesting suggestion was to “form an organization of moderates that recommends candidates in both primaries.” This makes a lot of sense, but it implies that moderates have a sufficient identity as moderates that they would seek out these recommendations, and that there would be a patron willing to put up the resources to fund such an operation. But this seems to have few if any downsides, and at least some upsides, and might not actually cost that much.

One respondent suggested that voters register for whichever party was the majority in their district, which would have the effect of watering down the power of the ideological stalwarts. This might work, but it implies a significant amount of coordination, and would only work in non-competitive districts (that is, in districts where the primary was tantamount to election), but King’s point is that polarization happens as much if not more in competitive districts, so this sort of strategic registration would be a non-starter there.

One idea that was suggested in a couple of posts was scrapping the primary and moving to run-off elections instead. They do this in Louisiana, and I’m not positive that it’s had the intended effects, at least on the Republican side. Can our readers suggest any evidence that run-off elections encourage moderation?

I also want to add that I did NOT mean to suggest that gerrymandering was fine. It’s not. But the reason is not that non-competitive seats lead to more polarization, which King’s evidence suggests is not that case. The real reason is that the House of Representatives is supposed to be sensitive to shifts in voter preferences. That sensitivity could happen even if it meant just swapping pole-huggers from one party for pole-huggers from the other when voter preferences shift. It’s probably also the case that more competitive elections would lead to greater voter knowledge, since more voters be bombarded with information every two years. It’s not clear that this would make them trust their MCs any more than they already do, but I’m also not sure whether this is even an important outcome.

Thanks for all the responses!


I just got finished teaching Congress this semester, and for my money, the most policy-relevant idea that I came across comes out of David King’s work on political polarization. Briefly put, there is a large literature in political science that argues that political polarization in Congress can be explained by the decreasing competitiveness of Congressional districts. In a perfectly competitive district, there would be very strong pressures for party nominees for the House to move to the location of the median voter in their district, because if they did not, it woud leave open an opportunity for their competitor to swoop in, seize that median voter and win office. This “median voter theory” was made famous by Anthony Downs in his Economic Theory of Democracy.

For a variety of reasons, we now have very few competitive districts, which means that Congressional elections almost everywhere now look a lot like 1940s Alabama, with the primary tantamount to election. Where this is the case, it is argued, ambitious office-seekers will get the message and appeal more to their primary electorate, and less to the median voter in their district. Add this up over 400-plus non-competitive seats in the House, and you’ve got a prescription for very few moderate members of Congress.

David King has looked into this and found that the old median voter theory doesn’t work so well. He found here that some of the most extreme members of Congress come from some of the most competitive districts. It turns out that when a district is competitive, the most extreme voters get highly mobilized and turn out for primary elections, driving the median primary voter even further to the poles. Were candidates chosen by fat, cigar-chewing men in back rooms, then this would create a great opporunity for Downsian action–one party would look at who the other was nominating and say, “wow! what good luck! those guys are slitting their throats by choosing a candidate at the 95% of district preferences” and pick someone closer to the median voter. But we now have primaries instead of having the party as an organization choose the candidate. And the important point is that primary voters are: a) uncoordinated and; b) self-selected on the basis of ideology–these are generally people who put a greater priority on ideology than victory.

Given a competitive district, this suggests that elections will tend to pit NOT two center-seeking candidates against one another, but two pole-huggers. The consequence will be that districts such as this will have a great deal of turnover, as voters elect one wingnut by 51%, and then throw him out the next time (for the opposite kind of wingnut) by the same spread.

Now, notice the logic of this. If King’s argument is true, then polarization is primarily a function of who shows up for the primary, NOT what the conditions of competition are in the general election. The further implication is that the more the primary becomes self-selecting on the basis of ideology, the more it will produce ideologically extreme candidates, REGARDLESS of the character of the district. So what can explain why this tendency to produce extreme candidates in competitive districts seems to have increased? David suggests two theories. First, turnout in Congressional off-year primaries has fallen through the floor–now it is only the most motivated (and thus ideological) activists who bother to show up. Second, the character of those party activists has changed–as the parties’ base have sorted out, the most active party members are those motivated by ideology, and not solidary benefits.

The implications here are quite stark. I’m not quite sure I buy David’s argument that competitive districts produce MORE polarized members. But I certainly think he’s right that it is the conditions that now prevail in the primary that really matter. The problem with this theory is that it suggests almost nothing can be done about the absence of moderates in Congress. It is relatively easy to hand districting over to a bunch of retired judges and tell them to draw straight lines that don’t split counties. That is a TECHNICAL fix. But how do we draw more moderates into primary elections? That is a cultural and behavioral problem.

On behalf of the whole markarkleiman.com family, who (at least some of us!) when we are not attacking the Bush administration are actually pretty moderate folks, hereby invite suggestions on how to drive up primary turnout.