Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Voting Undead

The midterm elections are less than seven weeks away. And I’ve noticed something about the way they are being discussed in the media which astounds me.

Of course, the press coverage is all about the horse race. Who is up and who is down in the polling? Will the Democrats manage to hold onto the Senate or will the Republicans take control of it? This sort of coverage is typical and to be expected.

But what is extraordinary is that the American press that I read and listen to—a fair mixture of left and right, I think—completely discounts what the election may have to say about the will of the American people.

In past elections, when the country has been severely and evenly divided, a looming election was seen as a verdict by the voters. Whichever party took majorities in Congress and/or won the White House was seen as having a mandate. On ABC, NBC, NPR, Fox or other outlets that I listen to, I do not hear anyone saying that the government will have a clearer idea of what the people want after the votes are counted. It is almost as if the reporting and commenting classes don’t think it matters any longer what the American people want. Everything is going to be decided by two political parties and what they can wrangle away from each other. In fact, on NPR I hear commentators explicitly say that they don’t expect the election to resolve or settle anything.

Why is this? For one thing, nobody foresees a result that would break the gridlock in government. If Democrats retain the Senate, they will continue to ignore bills passed by the House and vice versa. If Republicans take the Senate, bills may get passed out of Congress but, unless they are totally innocuous, they will get vetoed by the president. We have branches of government whose priorities are so out of sync with each other that they have completely lost the habit of negotiating or compromising.

What makes this really amazing is that the two houses of Congress and the president were all elected by pretty much the same voters. American voters turned the entire government over to Democrats in 2008, then very decidedly flipped the House two years later. That would suggest a shift to the right, but then the country voted to give the president four more years in 2012. The president is not on the ballot this year, but a third of the Senate is. If Republicans take a majority, should that not be seen as a mandate? It clearly won’t be—at least by the White House, which can be expected to continue its own agenda through executive powers and by killing congressional legislation it doesn’t like.

Are the voters politically schizophrenic or what? The best explanation for the mixed messages in congressional and presidential elections is population distribution. District elections tend to favor rural residents who tend to be more conservative. Nationwide votes tend to favor urban dwellers who trend more leftward. Furthermore, incumbents—whether they work on Capitol Hill or in the White House—enjoy huge advantages when up for re-election, which further skews the way the populace expresses its wishes.

But the most fundamental—and dangerous—reason that congressional elections are treated increasingly as near-irrelevant is that Congress’s power has eroded. As I discussed nearly a year ago when I talked about “zombie spending,” the federal government has grown so large and complex that members of Congress do not actually vote on funding or extending the government’s myriad components. It’s all too complicated anymore for that. Instead, at budget time members of Congress are given a binary (yes or no, up or down) choice: continue existing funding for everything with automatic increases or else shut down the government. In other words, there’s not really any choice at all.

The result is that there is really no reason for the executive branch and the legislative branch to negotiate over funding. And in non-funding areas, the executive branch has been more prone to effect changes by executive orders and department regulations. And in the case of waging war, that battleship sailed decades ago. No president has bothered to get a declaration of war from Congress, as required by the Constitution, since World War II.

So maybe all the commentators are correct when they keep saying that the election won’t resolve anything and that it won’t change anything. What the voters have to say about who wins the congressional elections just doesn’t matter much. That’s because, increasingly, Congress just doesn’t matter much.

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