Will the House of Representatives Make Itself Irrelevant?

Many politicians, activists and journalists embrace the myth that the path to a balanced budget lies through cuts in discretionary programs. As David Brooks notes, rather than grapple with the reality that Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on the debt are rapidly becoming the bulk of federal spending, some elected officials are proposing to trim a range of discretionary programs irrespective of their effectiveness or their collective impact on federal debt (which is utterly trivial compared to entitlements). Brooks argues that many of these cuts will do harm while making no meaningful contribution to balancing the budget, and he is correct.

What I find particularly odd about this process is that members in the House of Representatives are among those leading the charge. The creation and oversight of discretionary programs is the biggest and most complex responsibility the House of Representatives has. To analyze problems, hold hearings and design good legislation is serious work which many House members in history have done masterfully, making an enduring contribution in the process. Unlike the Senate, the House doesn’t do executive branch confirmations, vote on treaties, or advise and consent on judicial nominations.

So I ask: What will the House of Representatives do all day if we continue on this path? The entitlement programs are on auto-pilot and the executive branch can certainly take in and send out checks without the help of the House. Representatives’ oversight role gets less and less important as the discretionary programs become smaller and smaller. If they forbid themselves from responding to emerging social problems with new discretionary programs, they will be left with little to do other than hold press conferences about how terrible this or that problem is and wouldn’t it be great if someone could solve it for free? I half wonder if the ultimate plan is to reduce all discretionary programs to zero and then close the House itself, selling off half the Capitol Dome to private industry…maybe Ringling Brothers could stage a profitable high wire act in there, creating some jobs for recently unemployed clowns in the process.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

13 thoughts on “Will the House of Representatives Make Itself Irrelevant?”

  1. So, what you’re saying is that there’s no point in having the House, if they’re not going to spend all their time dreaming of new things to do with other people’s money?

  2. It may be as superficial an insight as one can have, but as I gaze upon the up-and-coming members of the Republican leadership, in the House and at large, I cannot help notice that they are, as a rule (and it is a new rule — that’s my point), remarkably good-looking. Politics used to be, as the wags have it, show business for the ugly. But, that was because the core attraction was power, not celebrity. Now, in the Era of Sarah Palin, celebrity is the objective.

    The Republicans pioneered the politics of symbolism, the politics of the culture wars, where Americans are permitted to hear full-throated conflict across the whole range of views, from reactionary to libertine.

    The politics of substance, or resource allocation — the politics of real power — has been usurped by the plutocracy. It is no longer within the grasp of politicians or pundits. There’s no discretion to raise taxes on the wealthy, which is the obvious imperative of our circumstances; it cannot even be discussed.

    We have entered the era of the spokes-model politician — the good-looking actor reading a script, and portraying a politics of symbolic combat over . . . symbols.

    It isn’t just the House, which has abandoned the business of state power; the whole democratic political apparatus is in the process of active abdication.

  3. Keith,

    What will they do all day?
    How about what they won’t do at all?

    That is answer these questions:

    What percent of the military spending has to be cut to balance the budget in 10 years?
    And how much more will be still be spending on our military than any other country?

    No one will even ask those questions.
    Not dims, not pugs, not the president, not media, not smug glibertarians with Ayn Rand pimples…

    Why is the military industrial complex our most sacred cow?
    Because the kick backs (campaign donations) from its CEOs put milk mustaches on all our elected representatives.
    We all know this…
    Don’t we?

    Oops…
    I forgot. As a nation we have the IQ of a steaming pile of dog doo:

    TPM reported the results of this poll this week:

    In a World Public Opinion poll conducted last November, respondents guessed, on average, that foreign aid spending represented 27% of the federal budget. To trim spending, the same respondents suggested that, on average, foreign should make up a slimmer 13% of the total budget, surely delivering massive savings.

  4. Irrelevant? The evolution of the House’s role in the de facto governance of the United States is absolutely essential.

    Bruce Wilder, above, distilled the essence of the matter quite well:

    The politics of substance, or resource allocation — the politics of real power — has been usurped by the plutocracy. It is no longer within the grasp of politicians or pundits. There’s no discretion to raise taxes on the wealthy, which is the obvious imperative of our circumstances; it cannot even be discussed.

    We have entered the era of the spokes-model politician — the good-looking actor reading a script, and portraying a politics of symbolic combat over . . . symbols.

    The role of Congress is to provide theater for the rubes: Look! We are the greatest democracy and the most awesomest people ever! And only the Republicans/Conservatives/Red People (Democrats/Liberals/Blue People) are moral/smart/honest/god-fearing/courageous/…enough to maintain our greatest, most awesomest status!

    The plutocracy (a significant portion of which is better characterized as a kleptocracy)is playing us like a well tuned violin. While we are at each other’s throats, they are stealing us blind. Divide et impera. Divide and rule. It’s the oldest play in the book.

  5. “So, what you’re saying is that there’s no point in having the House, if they’re not going to spend all their time dreaming of new things to do with other people’s money?”

    A somewhat more rational viewpoint is that in the real world there are both
    – externalities, both positive and negative, to the acts of economic actors AND
    – there are co-ordination problems (eg, trivially, do we drive on the left or the right side of the road)

    The House can do useful things if it is willing to deal with these issues.
    On the other hand, if it is simply going to claim that these issues don’t exist, that the free market, by itself, can handle everything under the sun, then, sure, get rid of it, because it’s certainly not useful under those conditions.

  6. Brett sez: “other people’s money?”

    Completely disagree. Your property is entirely built from human and social capital you inherited from circumstance. It’s an empirical question. That’s the principle. The reality is that a relatively fair and “lubricated” society requires a modicum of property rights, so a nice balance would be to respect your property unless society decides there’s a collective interest in taking back some of it. (“Back” referring specifically to the principle of inherited agency). Of course there are numerous things to balance, such as growth, reward, etc. But bottom line it isn’t really your money. 🙂

  7. IMHO these and other shenanigans we are observing are the sort of thing you see when the plutocrats and corporatocracy takes over. Hastening our decline. We are merely cataloging how it is done for the next country, so they can recognize it as it is happening and feel powerless to stop it too. And yet we hope that something like Egypt can happen here…

  8. Brett sez: “other people’s money?”

    Eli sez: Completely disagree. Your property is entirely built from human and social capital you inherited from circumstance.

    You can’t win that argument Eli…
    You’d have a better chance convincing Ayn Rand that she was a hypocrite for being on Medicare, than convincing one of her acolytes that they are nothing without the tribe and the commons. A person either feels, like Newton, that they are where they are because they have stood on the shoulders of giants, or they don’t. If they don’t, you just have stomach their irrational hubris. Thankfully, our culture and our genes doesn’t produce a lot of that sort. Because if it did, we’d still be throwing stones at each other and using sharp sticks to remove ticks and rotting teeth.

  9. Koreyel, while I’d like to think that I’ve arrived at my philosophical propositions through sheer rational inquiry, but increasingly I fear you may be right – that there’s just something temperamental to the whole enterprise. Because, in the end, do these core arguments over principle ever get resolved; aren’t we just batting ’bout the margins, until enough of one or another generation dies off or finds an interest in something other politics?

    Maybe the Klingons have it right, and we ought to settle these issues like men….

    Seriously though – maybe there is something to the notion that much of our political bent is temperamental – maybe genes, maybe not – but certainly some mix of environmental triggering that lays on onto a certain path. I think differentiating some of the psycho-social factors would be really interesting. Bob Altemeyer’s work seems very fascinating, although I think conservatives find him hard to take seriously. I’d be interested though in hearing from them whether any of it did ring true, and what if any psycho-social explanations they might come up with.

  10. Altemeyer’s work on “authoritarians” indicates that right-wing authoritarian followers are not thinking at all. They’re frightened and resentful, but they are in a place where they are not willing to think critically about politics.

    A philosophical conservative is thinking about politics. In that sense, Altemeyer’s authoritarian followers are not “conservative” in any philosophical sense, and certainly not “libertarian”. They are not open to persuasion, although they are subject to manipulation. It is their openness to manipulation, and the ruthless eagerness of authoritarian dominators and sociopaths to manipulate them, which associates the authoritarian followers with the political Right. The politics of hot buttons is the mild form of such manipulation of fixed political attitudes; Shock Doctrine politics is based on the insight that proportion of people sharing an attitude cluster as authoritarian followers can be increased by events and experiences: it may be possible to scare up a Republican majority by the simple expedient of timely terror alerts, if the proper groundwork has been laid.

    Altemeyer’s “right-wing authoritarian followers” are not, I repeat, philosophical conservatives. They don’t necesarily share the interests or values of those, who find the ease with which they can be manipulated, politically useful and convenient. It is possible to bring many of them into a Left coalition; in American politics, appeals to authoritarian followers were traditionally termed “populist”, and “populist” appeals have been made in support of a broad (philosophical) range of issues from white supremacy to the reforms of the New Deal.

    The founders of Republican Party very deliberately infiltrated the nativist “Know-Nothing” American Party, and brought them into what would be the Party of Lincoln and emancipation. Bryan’s populism brought crucial support to the Progressivism of Woodrow Wilson.

    Authoritarian followers are exquisitely sensitive to feelings of in-group solidarity, though they are otherwise egalitarian to the point of socialism (as are good soldiers anywhere). Many liberals, being universal idealists in their attitudes, find solidarity a bit difficult to grasp, let alone endorse. The liberals would rather persuade others of the universal appeal of favored principles, than accept the reality of coalition politics, let alone the political legitimacy and claims of feelings of solidarity. Liberals like to scratch their heads, and wonder why the little people vote against their own economic interests, but are unwilling to make the kind of political committments to solidarity, in place of or in complement to ideal principles, which would be necessary to secure a stable majority. On issues like immigration or labor organization, many liberals simply do not grasp the necessity of solidarity over principle.

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