March 10, 2010

Another Question About Government

Why, exactly, do we have a bicameral legislature?

Oh, sure, I know it's in the Constitution.  But why did the Framers want a bicameral Congress?  Nebraska seems to do just fine with a unicameral state legislature.  England and the UK do pretty well with an effectively unicameral legislature (the Lords have some power but not much that is meaningful).  Indeed, there's lots of countries with a unicameral, or effectively unicameral, legislature -- and like the UK, the executive is chosen from within the ranks of that body, which is what we call a "parliamentary" system of government.

The idea is that there is more deliberation, more compromise, more discussion and thought, if politicians with differing sorts of political incentives considered the same idea.  The apocryphal story is of Washington and Jefferson having coffee and arguing over what purpose the Senate fulfilled; Washington compared the Senate to the saucer in which Jefferson poured his coffee to cool it.

But as a practical matter, members of the Senate these days respond to a very similar set of incentives as do members of the House.  At the state level, members of a state's lower house respond to functionally identical incentives as to members of the state's upper house -- that's certainly the case here in California, it was certainly the case in Tennessee, and I imagine that's the case in 47 of the remaining 48 states.  At the Federal level, individual Senators tend to have a higher profile than individual members of the House, excepting either the most prominent House members (like the Speaker or certain key committee chairs) and those who are currently embroiled in scandal, such as until-very-recently Congressman Eric "tickle fight" Massa.*

Now, if you're a liberal or a progressive or a Democrat or someone who more closely identifies with those labels than their opposites, you're probably thinking that I'm talking about health care reform and why the hell don't the Democrats actually get their acts together and use that overwhelming majority they have.  Which is an interesting political question, I'll readily concede.  I'm not entirely sure I'm all that upset that things are stalled out the way they are, but I'm also not so sure that if something does pass that it will be all that awful.  I think I'm suffering from bogeyman fatigue, and just plain old healthcare talk fatigue on that score.

But what I'm really asking here is a more abstract question.  Given the possibility of split partisan control of different houses of the Legislature, in theory we would wind up with a Broder-esque world where leaders of both parties sit down, trade logs, compromise, and try to craft a policy acceptable to a wide majority of people.  In practice, we rarely see split control of both houses of a legislature.  I've not done much statistical research but it seems that especially at the Federal level, out of the 111 Congresses we've had since the Constitution was first adopted, only 18 have seen split partisan control (that's counting the 107th Congress, which saw the Senate go from effective Republican control on a 50-50 split with the Vice President casting the tiebreaker to effective Democratic control when Jim Jeffords changed his registration to being an independent and started caucusing with the Democrats).  When we do, we tend to see that sort of compromise only on "must pass" sorts of laws, like budgets, and the result is a bunch of pork being thrown around at marginal districts to buy votes needed for one side or the other to pass.  It makes for interesting political tactics but damn poor political strategy.

Now, the Connecticut Compromise was probably necessary to get the Constitution reported out of the original Convention in 1787.  So we keep it for that reason.  But the only requirement in the Constitution about the States is that they have a "republican form of government" (note the small "r").  What exactly this means we don't know because that ambiguous phrase isn't defined in the Constitution itself.  Obviously involves elections of some kind, and some sort of representative democracy.  All of the states have chosen to emulate the Federal pattern of republican governmental structure, which in turn followed Montesquieu's division of the governmental power into executive, legislative, and judicial.

The more I consider California's government, the more I realize just how messed up the structure of the government has become.  An incredible amount of power is delegated to very local sorts of governmental units, some of which are incredibly specialized.  Water boards hold huge veto power over nearly everything that gets done with land.  To the extent that such boards consist of elected members, contested elections are very rare; more often, the boards consist of people appointed by the Governor, who then create regulations (thus legislating) and then decide if people have violated those rules (thus adjudicating).  This form of government, in practice, does not strike me as particularly 'republican.'  Which isn't to say it's bad, or that the people who do it are bad people.  It was pointed out to me today that most of them are simply trying to do a good job and haven't given much thought at all to the political theory underlying their power and the way they exercise it.  And that as a practical matter, this is really the only way to do things in a way that gets anything done anyway.

"But 'ats not the point, innit?" as my British friend might say after he'd had a beer or two.  The point is, we're promised a republican form of government and what we get is a surplus of high-level legislature for no particular reason other than that's how the Feds do it, and little effective benefit in the quality of the resulting lawmaking product.  And we're given a tremendous amount of actual, everyday exercise of governmental power in these quasi-executive specialty agencies that do not coordinate with one another to work towards a broad policy goal and over which the public has at best only highly indirect control.  Maybe the system actually works in practice but as California's example (and Illinois is right behind us) demonstrates, too much of this has led to hyperpluralism, hyperdelegation, and hyperspending with few checks and balances to tame the beast. 

With the endgame, that we see now, of the beast consuming all available resources, growing large and unwieldy, and then finding that there are no more resources to consume and going into agonizing throes of starvation.  One of the symptoms of those starvation pangs is when people start seriously examining some facetious suggestions which I made nearly a year ago, right here on this very blog.

A unicameral legislature in Sacramento is not the immediate answer to the question of what to do about the state being twenty-six billion dollars in debt.  And unless the state government breaks free from corruption, it might actually make things worse.  But if a unicameral legislature were sufficiently large, it might be difficult to buy enough votes to get any particular idea through it.  The House of Representatives, at 435 members, is probably too small compared to the number and magnitude of issues it handles to avoid being a tempting and achievable target for corruption.  But if a unicameral California legislature had something like twice that many members, maybe that would dilute voting strength and thus the ability to engage in purchase ("rental" seems like a better word when you think about it) of a politician for a special interest, and create small enough districts that a high level of personal accountability to voters could be re-achieved.

I'm just thinking outside the box here -- but why don't we do this?  I'm sure there would be a significant downside to this.  The expense, for one, but frankly, that's actually not that hard or large a problem to solve.  What I want to focus on is what kinds of political behavior and policy outputs we might expect from a 900-member unicameral legislature as opposed to the 80-40 bicameral legislature we have.  Political theorists, have at it and tell me what you think.

* When Glenn Beck says he's sorry he wasted your time, your time has indeed been well and truly wasted.


Unknown said...

Part of the reasoning is that the incentive is (supposed to) give "balanced" weight between the needs of big states (Cali, Texas, NY) and smaller states. Eliminate some of that, and NY might as well swallow up a couple surrounding states just for the fun of it.

Of course, it also made a lot more sense when Senators were appointed by the state legislatures, rather than put forth by a vote of whatever uninformed idiots.

Burt Likko said...

Sure, I get that, M1rth. Thing is, that has no translation at all to a state legislature. I should have asked, "why should states like California or New York have bicameral legislatures?"

Anonymous said...

The other major advantage of a federal upper house that does not extend to the lower house is that while congressional districts can be gerrymandered states cannot be.

I think that states should go unicameral. I might think differently if states had their upper house organized by geography rather than the same as the House, but I think the courts have actually ruled that unconstitutional.